22
Jan
10

Keeping America safe … from foodies

Grass-finished beef. I KNOW where this has been. Photo by yours truly.

Updated below.

As I was sayin’, there’s something a little fishy about all these contrarian takes on conventional wisdom, by writers who style themselves as brave iconoclastic thinkers but really are just defenders of the status quo.

Here’s another one, on a subject dear to my heart, the merits of grass-fed (and -finished) over “conventionally raised” beef.  In the ominously titled Beware the myth of grass-fed beef at Slate, Dr. James McWilliams, associate professor of history at Texas State University, scores yet another high-profile national opinion place. Previously, he had posted pieces on the New York Times‘ “Freakanomics” blog with provocative titles like “Are Farmer’s Markets that Good for Us?” Last April he snared the prime real estate of the Times opinion page with Free-range trichonosis, in which he argued that free-range pork could be more dangerous that the pork that comes from factory farms.

About that particular 0p-ed. It was published April 9. On April 14, this disclaimer appeared at the bottom of the piece:

An Op-Ed article last Friday, about pork, neglected to disclose the source of the financing for a study finding that free-range pigs were more likely than confined pigs to test positive for exposure to certain pathogens. The study was financed by the National Pork Board.

(Oops. Maybe someone on the Times‘ opinion staff might have thought to ask about that before running it in the paper of record. Or maybe they did. Nobody reads the retractions….)

And McWilliams is also called out in this (generally favorable) Publishers Weekly review:

At times, McWilliams shortchanges his own arguments by failing to disclose the financial or institutional backing of his sources (including various talking heads, esoteric-sounding think tanks, and scientific journals), leaving readers to comb extensive footnotes and web links to determine how the evidence stacks up.

If  McWilliams’ goal has been to ruffle the feathers of alternative agriculture advocates everywhere, he has succeeded admirably.  Mr. Google turns up many angry responses to his sometimes shady polemics.

This one, by Tom Laskowy, pegs McWilliams as as a willing participant in the FUDosphere (FUD standing for Fear Uncertainty Doubt), a “network of Sith-lord scientists and unrepentant PR flacks who have no compunctions about tweaking their research methodologies … to generate results both favorable to industry and confusing to those trying to understand the truth.”

The FUD-osphere includes doctors who perform industry-funded research to demonstrate the safety of new drugs (Vioxx, anyone?). It includes crackpot scientists and historians, like James McWilliams, who has an op-ed in the NYT in defense of factory-farmed pork—shown to be fiction by Marion Nestle and and Civil Eats. McWilliams has a history with this kind of thing—he authored a deeply flawed article in Slate —debunked here—accusing organic agriculture of responsibility for the presence of heavy metals in soil. Meanwhile, he has written a forthcoming book about the evils and dangers of local food. Really.

In a review of his Just Food, also in Grist, Stephanie Ogburn identifies McWilliams’ modus operandi:

Again and again, one gets the uncomfortable feeling that McWilliams creates fanatical straw men in order to make his own presentation of facts seem like a rational alternative. “The problems that I have with organic agriculture have less to do with how it is currently practiced than with the inflated claim that it’s the only alternative to today’s wasteful conventional production,” he writes. But do any serious proponents seeking more sustainable alternatives to conventional agriculture claim this?

OK. To the subject at hand, the “myth” of grass-fed beef. McWilliams’ point is not wrong. It just does not merit being treated as a sensational revelation.
The news peg is pretty dramatic: one particular strain of E. coli bacteria, O157:H7, has been present in several massive recalls of beef, most recently Monday’s recall of 864,000 pounds of ground beef by California’s Huntington Meat Packing.
McWilliams accepts that the acidic stomach of grain-fed cattle is capable of spawning up to a million times more acid-resistant E. coli than grass-fed cattle, as studies at the beginning of the decade demonstrated.  However, he points out that more recent studies have shown “that grass-fed cows … become colonized with E. coli O157:H7 at rates nearly the same as grain-fed cattle.” This is not an unimportant fact (though  it ignores the important context of cleanliness at slaughter–see below).   But McWilliams takes it as earth-shattering, and  as an opportunity to deliver a knockout blow to his favorite straw man:
The point in dredging up these studies … [is]  a warning that advocacy for a trendy food choice might result in a public health hazard. Such a fear is confirmed by consulting the cooking directions provided by many purveyors of grass-fed beef. The home page for one major producer explains that “cooking ‘real food’ is not the same as cooking concocted food. … Grass-fed meats are best when raw (steak tartar), rare, or medium rare.” Given that the FDA recommends cooking ground beef to 160 degrees to guarantee safety from E. coli, this eat-it-undercooked advice could be dangerous.
Here comes the giant leap in logic: a loose claim by a purveyor of grass-fed beef  “offers a disturbing lesson in how culinary wisdom becomes foodie dogma and how foodie dogma can turn into a recipe for disaster.”Ah, the foodie, “the right-on, ‘yes we can,’ ACORN-loving, public-option-supporting man or woman of the people” of Caitlin Flanagan’s fevered dreams. Wealthy, trendy, elitist, and ultimately dangerous. Honestly, I am not always nuts about the pretentiousness of foodie culture. But there is nothing monolithic about it. Certainly, not everyone opting out of industrial agriculture can be tarred with the foodie brush either. Quite simply, there is no foodie orthodoxy, or dogma.
And that is the case with regard to the dangers, or potential dangers, of eating any kind of food. I know there are risks of salmonella even with my free-range poached eggs, but I still like them  a little runny. Just because I raise my own beef doesn’t mean there are no food safety issues to consider when serving it rare or bleu. I’ll take my chances. We all will.
At this point, those of us who are choosing alternatives are doing it not because we think we have hit on the final solution to the world’s food problems. Opting out is also in large part a protest, a refusal to buy into an industrial food system that is cruel, inefficient, unsustainable and in many ways toxic. So we still have to be careful regarding E. coli. Thank you. We knew that.
Facts are facts, and I’m sure Dr. McWilliams only toils in the service of the Truth, but one wonders how loud a splash an associate professor from Texas State would have made if his edgy, contrarian posturing wasn’t so reassuring to the corporations and trade associations that control industrial agriculture today.
Update: Another important point from eatwild.com:

Whether or not grass-feeding reduces the number and acidity of E. coli in the digestive tract of cattle, there is another undisputed reason that eating grass-fed beef may be safer. Cattle raised on pasture are cleaner at the time of slaughter.

E. coli contamination takes place in the slaughterhouse when manure from an animal comes in contact with meat. The less manure on an animal when it enters the slaughter house, the less likely the meat will become contaminated.

It is difficult to remove all the fecal contamination from feedlot cattle because they stand all day long in dirt and manure. In a recent article in the magazine Meat Marketing and Technology, the associate editor stated that pasture-raised animals were much easier to clean “because they come from small herds raised in relatively clean pastures.” Most U.S. cattle, he said, “are raised in far larger numbers in congested and typically less sanitary feed lots.” (“The Future of Food Safety,” by Joshua Lipsky. Meat Marketing and Technology, April 2001.)

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