Last week The New Scientist reported the results of a study regarding the disease rates in organic pigs versus ones raised conventionally.
This is a no brainer, right? The organic pigs are by far going to be healthier, have less exposure to disease given their healthier living conditions and just generally be happier and shinier, right? Um, well, no.
According to the study, done by researchers from the College of Veterinary Medicine at The Ohio State University, of the U.S. pigs that were tested, they found traces of Salmonella in 39% of the conventionally raised pigs (which are routinely given antibiotics) and in 54% of organic pigs raised outdoors without the drugs. Did you just snort those pork rinds out yer snout? Well, read on.
Additionally, the study found that two of the organic pigs had signs of infection with Trichinella, our dear roundworm friend that can cause trichinosis when undercooked pork is eaten. Trichinella has been nearly eradicated in livestock in the the U.S. and Europe, although it still exists in wildlife. The rate they found it was 23 times the average frequency in conventional piggies.
And, just to wrap things up, the researchers also found traces of the parasite Toxoplasma, which is carried by cats and other animals, in 1% of conventional pigs and 7% of free-range animals. For those of you who have been pregnant, you will recognize this as the parasite that can damage developing fetuses.
Now, before you start throwing out all your organic pork products in fear for your life let me remind you that as long as pork is cooked thoroughly according to federal guidelines, the presence of these infectious agents in food animals should pose no risk to human health. So, what's one to do? Shooting pigs up with antibiotics prophylactically breeds antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but not giving them drugs means more animals carry Salmonella and other nasties.
This doesn't, of course, take into consideration animal welfare or other environmental impacts, but if we were to look strictly at food safety this poses a huge conundrum. Does eliminating antibiotic pre-treatment create an environment for the resurgence of diseases that we thought were somewhat under control? What does this all signify and can the same parallels be drawn in other animal stock? Will we see similar results if organic poultry and cattle operations are similarly studied and compared against conventional?
The obvious argument will be just to choose a vegan or vegetarian diet and you then eliminate all chance of meat-borne pathogens, but let's face it, that's just not a realistic answer.
Now comes the biggest question of them all, if you dig deep into the bowels of the original study article in Foodborne Pathogens and Disease you'll find this gem: "This project was funded by a grant from the National Pork Board (NPB-04-108)."
How significant is that? If you read the study it appears that the researchers are basically just reporting the numbers of animals found exhibiting the presence of certain pathogens, but we all know how numbers can be massaged to support one argument over another. How can we trust food safety research if there is the possibility of an ulterior motive funded by industry?
In either case, we are in a bit of a pickle. On one hand, organic pork appears to have more contaminants. If this isn't actually the case, then we are being bombarded by food safety studies that are skewed to smear the organic industry.
So, what should we do with this information?