Response to “Is Free Range Meat Making Us Sick?”

On May 10, 2010, The Atlantic published an article by James McWilliams, titled “Is Free Range Meat Making Us Sick?” Below is the comment posted by Judith McGeary, Executive Director of Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance.

McWilliams tries to claim that sustainably raised foods are “making people sick,” but the studies he cites simply don’t support that conclusion.

While McWilliams portrays “free range” as the alternative to factory farms or CAFOs, this is simply wrong. Under U.S. law, “free range” means only that the animals are given “access to the outdoors.” While some small sustainable farms use the term, “free range” operations are often factory farms, in which thousands of chickens or hogs are housed in a large building with a door leading to a dry lot with no grass in it. “Free range” operations often use the same poor-quality feed, antibiotics, vaccines, and hormones as regular CAFOs, contrary to McWilliams’ claim in his concluding paragraph.

So the various studies that looked at animals or meat from commercial “free range” operations, such as the salmonella or USDA study on taxoplasma, say little-to-nothing about the true alternative to CAFOs: sustainable, pasture-based livestock farms.

The other studies cited in the article are equally flawed. The study on Trich in pigs in the Netherlands tested the animals’ blood for antibodies to the parasite. It’s no surprise that animals with some sort of access to the outdoors would have higher levels of antibodies due to exposure. That does not mean that the animals were sick nor that humans who deal with them or eat their meat are more likely to get sick. In the study of Trich from Sardinia, four pigs were found to be infected in an isolated event, hardly evidence of any pattern of illness.

The flaws with the article reach absurdity when McWilliams cites the studies out of Mozambique and Nigeria. Pigs are scavenger animals, who will rummage through trash and eat dead animals. Looking at parasite infections in pigs in 3rd world countries without adequate sanitation says absolutely nothing about consumer safety in the US.

Notably, this year’s Texas Conference on Organic Production Systems was held in the same town as McWilliams’ college, yet he didn’t bother to come and learn about the true alternatives to factory farms. There are many sustainable livestock farms within a couple of hours of his college, and the local farmers markets carry a wide range of products from sustainable farms. There have been no reports of people getting sick from the meats, and the Texas consumers — like those in other parts of the country — can vouch for both the quality and the safety of these meats, eggs, and dairy products.