Is Slate’s Takedown of Free-Range Pork Just a Bunch of Hogwash?

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In recent days, Salon and Slate have explored a couple of interesting carnivorous dilemmas. Salon examines the pros and cons of horse slaughter, a practice that is mostly discontinued here (except for the 72,000 horses per year that are trotted off to be killed in Mexico and Canada) but is only just now at risk of being legally banned. Meanwhile, a Slate piece takes some of the feel-goodism out of free-range pigs by pointing out that theyre often outfitted with nose rings that hurt their snouts when they forage (a measure to protect the forest bed), something that a PETA spokesperson says causes lifelong depression. Adding to that, theyre castrated without anesthesia in order to avoid an unpleasant taste called boar taint. All very disturbing, but there are a few problems with the piece.

First, the author doesnt specify which farms, exactly, hes talking about. Though he quotes no less than three animal-welfare advocates, he doesnt bother to get any quotes from farmers. When we called Jennifer Small at Flying Pigs Farm (a favorite of Peter Hoffman of Savoy, Il Buco, and others), she assured us she doesnt employ nose rings and takes pains to reseed damaged turf instead. Whats more, she has no trouble buying piglets from other farms that also refrain from ringing. I dont think its a common thing in the Northeast, she says, though she admits shes speaking only from her own experience. Contrary to the articles assertion that castration is deeply painful to a pig, Small says, My husband castrates them and I have to admit I was very surprised that as soon as you put them down theyre running around like nothing happened. They might slow down a little bit for twelve or twenty hours, but its surprising how little they seem to be affected. Which might explain why her vet told her painkillers weren't necessary. But then why castrate them at all? Small says that aside from boar taint, as well as the risk of a female being impregnated shortly before slaughter, uncastrated pigs also tend to fight more often. Castration may cause them pain when they are young, but if youve ever seen boars fight almost to the death, its a horrible thing to watch.

Interestingly enough, this isnt the first time author James E. McWilliams has taken a swipe at free-range pork. Back in April, his Times op-ed piece infuriated the Food, Inc. crowd by raising health concerns about the meat. He cited a study that found 54 percent of free-range pigs carrying salmonella (a higher rate than factory-farmed pigs) and 2 out of 600 free-range pigs carrying trichinella. Marion Nestle and others argued that McWilliams glossed over the fact that just because an antibody like trichinella is found in a pigs blood doesnt mean its actually infected with trichinosis, and even if it were, its nothing proper cooking couldnt kill. They also reprimanded him for failing to disclose that the study was funded by the National Pork Board, which they said protected the interest of factory farms (the Times later amended the article with disclosure of this). In a rebuttal published on the Atlantics food blog, McWilliams admitted to potential translation errors but also argued that just because studies are funded by corporations doesnt mean theyre biased (after all, this one was published in a prestigious journal). He also said he didnt feel the need to bog his article down with descriptions of what makes an antibody different from a disease.

Anyway, the question is this: If Slate knew McWilliams had already generated so much controversy with his Times piece, why would they let him write a post where he makes broad generalizations about free-range pork without specifying how many farms do or dont engage in the practices he describes, and where the only quotes come from animal-rights advocates?

By the way, if all this makes you wonder whether McWilliams likes his bacon from Flying Pigs Farm or from Oscar Mayer dude doesnt eat meat.