Monday, April 13, 2009

Free-range trichinosis?

The title of historian James McWilliams' op-ed last week in the New York Times is "free-range trichinosis" -- a hard-hitting call to alarm, given that trichinosis is a deadly disease.

The op-ed summarizes research in the journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, which found higher rates of pathogen exposure among free-range pigs, including, McWilliams said, "most alarming, two free-range pigs that carried the parasite trichina (as opposed to zero for confined pigs)."

The Center for a Livable Future and Marion Nestle suggest McWilliams should have more carefully distinguished the study's actual findings (about serum antibodies showing exposure/immunity) from the risk of disease (not studied in this preliminary research).

They also suggest McWilliams should have at least mentioned that the study was sponsored by the National Pork Board, which often shares favorable research with journalists while never circulating unfavorable research.

I asked McWilliams if he came across the study through sources that could be traced to the National Pork Board.

(McWilliams, who is a fascinating and genial guy, a lively raconteur, and a vegetarian with a long history of free-thinking on food system issues, had the bad luck to owe me a beer from an enjoyable conversation on his recent visit to Boston, so he may have felt obliged to answer my email).

He said he came across the study independently:
In no way did the pork industry direct my attention to this piece--I am very much opposed to industrial meat production and would never be led by the nose to do the industry's bidding. I don't know a single soul, nor have I ever had even so much as an e-mail contact, with anyone in the industry.... The issue of finding large studies that lack any industry connection is a vexed one. Does the presence of industry funding automatically negate the legitimacy of the findings? I do not think so. It certainly demands heightened awareness, but if we tossed out all the beneficial findings about, say, organic agriculture because the studies were funded by organic interests, we'd have little concrete evidence of organic's many benefits.
I agree with McWilliams' formulation, saying that industry funding does not automatically negate the legitimacy of the findings, but that it requires heightened awareness. At every stage of the scientific endeavor, from topic selection, to choice of methodology, to write-up, to distribution of results, industry funding exerts a gentle influence in selecting favorable results and screening contradictory evidence.

So, doesn't "heightened awareness" suggest McWilliams at least should have mentioned the study's National Pork Board funding?

"That's a tough question," he responded.
My fear was that mentioning the funding source would have immediately led a substantial portion of readers to quit reading. Given that my goal in covering these controversial issues is to make sure that we in the sustainable food movement remain vigilant about the alternatives we have chosen, the last thing I wanted was to alienate readers who would automatically (and perhaps mistakenly) assume that the industry backing undermined the results of the study. If there was a precedent of journalists consistently citing funding sources, then perhaps I would say yes, I should have done it. My choice was to trust the journal's peer review process and not mention the funding source. Maybe I should have noted that the journal is highly respected and peer reviewed.
McWilliams is the author of the forthcoming book, "Just Food: How Locavores Are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly."

Hmm. About that choice of word, "endangering" ...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Trichinosis is a potentially deadly disease. It is not a death sentence.