Free Range Pigs and Salmonella

January 28, 2009

The standard line has always been that free range pigs are healthier pigs than conventionally raised pigs. They’re freer, happier, and thus, with stress levels reduced, healthier. See this piece, for example, published by the Soil Association:  It all seems reasonable enough, if conspicuously silent on the ultimate fate of these frolicking beasts. 

A wealth of recent studies, however, have amassed impressive, if disturbing, empirical evidence that free range pigs are in fact much more likely to carry salmonella and several other potentially deadly bacteria, including trichenella (which has been all but eliminated from conventional pork). The reasons for the greater rates of disease in outdoor pigs is not altogether clear. Interaction with wildlife (rats, birds, feral cats) might be a factor, as might the wide dispersal of manure. The fact that scientists are unsure of the reasons behind this phenomenon means more studies will surely be forthcoming. 

I highlight these studies below not to suggest that we should all run out and eat conventionally raised pork. To the contrary, I merely want to reiterate that when it comes to eating meat it is very difficult to settle on options that are both healthy and environmentally beneficial. Frankly, I think we’d all be better off if we gave the stuff up.

These studies are rather dense, but I suggest plowing through them.  The message could not be more clear: free range pigs are more dangerous to eat.  Why? Well, that’s the big question in this emerging debate.

Here’s an excerpt from the abstract of one of the earlier studies, published in 2004 in a Danish academic journal:

“[S]eroprevalence data have indicated a higher incidence of Salmonella in outdoor than in indoor production systems. This higher incidence may be due to an increased exposure of the animals to the surrounding environment, including contact with wildlife. In a study on the transmission of Salmonella to outdoor pigs an unexpected high diversity of Salmonella serotypes that are not normally isolated from pigs . . .was detected in faecal and in soil and water samples. . . The unidentified source of the Salmonella serotypes isolated implies inadequate control possibilities and may therefore pose a problem to outdoor pig production in terms of food safety.”


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