Government officials and pork industry representatives are working hard to convince the public that it’s still safe to eat pork despite the rapidly spreading swine flu virus that may have already infected two Iowans.
They are correct that there is no risk of contracting the flu from eating pork.
Some Mexican news reports have linked the swine flu outbreak to conditions in factory farms owned by the Smithfield Foods corporation. Smithfield released a statement saying the company “has no reason to believe that the virus is in any way connected to its operations in Mexico.” However, many commentaries have highlighted the ways that confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) may contribute to the spread of disease. See this post by Ellinorianne or articles linked in this post by Jill Richardson.
Whether or not the swine flu outbreak is ever conclusively linked to CAFOs, there is already overwhelming evidence of problems with the current model for raising hogs industrially. Charles Lemos briefly covered them in this post. For more detail, read last year’s report by the Union of Concerned Scientists: CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations. Also last year, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production issued its final report on “Putting Meat on The Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America.” The authors concluded that “The current industrial farm animal production (IFAP) system often poses unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and the welfare of the animals themselves […].” There are many resources on the Save Antibiotics site as well.
For some people, including April Streeter of the Treehugger blog, problems with the CAFO model warrant giving up pork altogether.
I would encourage those who enjoy pork to choose meat from sustainable producers instead. Depending on where you live, it may be hard to find pork that hasn’t been factory-farmed because of the massive consolidation in the pork industry during the past decade or two (see also here).
Central Iowa residents are fortunate to have the Iowa Food Cooperative close by. Several different farmers raising hogs organically, or on pasture without hormones and antibiotics, sell a wide range of pork products through the coop.
If you don’t live near a store or market that sells sustainable meat, an advocacy organization such as Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Iowa Network for Community Agriculture or the Women, Food and Agriculture Network may be able to put you in touch with a farmer who sells pork directly to consumers.
Sustainable meat can be expensive, but you can reduce the cost by buying directly from the farmer. If you have a chest freezer and buy in large quantities, the price per pound can drop down into the range you would pay for lower-quality conventionally raised meat.
UPDATE: Jill Richardson linked to an interview Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack gave CNN today, in which he talked about eating pork every day. Vilsack echoed industry talking points about how the media should be calling this virus by its scientific name, H1N1, instead of using the term “swine flu.” I agree with Jill:
Whether or not this flu came from a factory farm, I don’t think the fact that factory farms are a problem is really up for debate. Vilsack comes from a state totally overrun by them so he should know best.