Is Free-Range Meat Making Us Sick?

I’m a firm believer that nothing should be sacred. If Carnegie-Mellon says buying local vegetables only shaves 4% off the carbon footprint, I can live with that. I’ll still buy because I’m investing in the community, it’s fresher and most importantly, usually tastes better. So this post at The Atlantic’s food section, while painfully self-absorbed (never heard of this guy, or the “controversy” he apparently touched off), asks a reasonable question:

Lost in all the huffing and puffing over my omission, however, was the gist of the underlying question itself: to what extent are animals raised under free-range conditions prone to contracting diseases that can affect humans?

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Author: Scott

I am a married father of two. I graduated from Rock Bridge High School and then Mizzou before spending six years in the Washington, D.C. area. We returned to Columbia, Missouri in 2006.

4 thoughts

  1. I remember this guy, and his poorly presented original article. He’s right that his underlying idea got lost in the scuffle, but I still think his intentions were less than purely academic.

    Fair question, though, and I’m not enough of a microbiologist to address it fairly. I would point out, though, that many such discussions miss a fundamental point: within the labels “free-range”, “organic”, “cage-free”, or any such category, there are still huge variations in terms of farm size, farm management, farmer skill, farm setting/geography/climate. and so on that really play into a question like this.

    For example, the year-round feeding system may make a difference. Even most ranged animals get some purchased feed, especially in winter, and the quality of their feed can affect their health and thus susceptibility to diseases, just as in humans.

    The setting may make a difference; a dry vs. tropical climate will have different environments for diseases to breed. The amount of standing water, slope & cover on the pastures, nearby features, surrounding wildlife populations, etc. can all have an effect.

    The size of the farm makes a difference; there are different disease breeding and transmission mechanisms in free-range herds/flocks of tens compared to thousands. For example, at CFM alone, our egg vendors range from keeping tens to hundreds to thousands of birds. They’re all ranged in the sense of not being in CAFOs and having some access to open ground, but the management techniques vary hugely and one could reasonably assume there are variables between these “free-range” farms.

    Farm management and skill are huge. A well-meaning person who hasn’t done their homework could raise some nice sustainable animals but be missing some key points that increase their risk. This is certainly true for vegetable growers, some of whom don’t follow some pretty basic food safety concepts. Small doesn’t make them skilled.

    So whenever I read an article like this, I see over-simplification. Until you can run a well-designed study looking at specific farms and their specific situations, broad-brush assumptions just don’t cut it for me. There are just too many specific variables in farming for a generalist approach to mean anything.

    And yes, this cuts both ways. “Organic” or “local” isn’t necessarily better depending on the circumstances. I’ve run across some instances of both types of farms that I wouldn’t want to buy from; I’ve seen dishonesty and virtue at many levels. Know You Farmer means exactly that.

    Finally, whether or not any individual farm or animal could be hazardous or disease-prone, there’s one more argument that needs serious attention. Small farms and localized food systems simply do not pose as systemic a risk to our overall food systems. Look at that latest lettuce recall, to 30_+ states. The dirtiest local farm possible isn’t going to have that kind of impact. Food production & consumption is inherently dirty and risky, but decentralizing the process gives us a better chance to minimize that risk and its wider consequences. Given a choice of two dirty farms, I’ll take the one whose products travel 30 miles over 3,000 any day.

  2. Quick and thoughtful response Eric. Thanks. I thought the most significant flaw was the small sample sizes…almost anecdotes, really. At the same time, salmonella and the like are naturally-occuring agents humans have always had to contend with. Raising food in more natural environments (and absent massive doses of hormones and antibiotics CAFOs make necessary) could, just possibly, raise some risks. Worth studying. In the meantime I’ll keep mine mostly local.

  3. Scott,

    That’s another point worth considering. As humans move to less and less natural methods of food production, our bodies become less and less exposed/attuned to the natural pathogens present in the environment. Thus, when those do sneak back in, we have stronger reactions than before. It’s basically the same issue as concerns over people over-sanitizing their homes & lives; kids raised in too-clean homes are more likely to have allergies, etc.

    I see it as comparable to the RoundUp situation you linked to. Whenever humans attempt to out-engineer nature and create something perfect and sanitized, the natural systems respond and evolve. Then all we’ve done is create something we’re even less able to deal with than the original problem. So whether or not free-range/organic/etc. is “cleaner” or “safer”, I’d argue it’s closer to the systems humans are evolved to handle.

    I think what we need is a better sense of cost/benefit analysis and a better ability to assess and understand risk, rather than a pretension that we can eliminate it. This is true whether we’re discussing oil wells or food.

  4. Thanks for a good discussion, Eric and Scott. Scott, I just caught up on your columns. Good stuff. The tips from chefs to home cooks was an excellent piece. I’m now making sure my meat is dry before cooking.

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