Is It Safe To Eat Pork?

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In a word, yes.

Despite the human outbreak of "swine flu," an ominous term which has hogged the headlines in recent days, it's perfectly safe to eat properly cooked pork products. The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it's safe; as does the National Pork Producers Council, of course. "Properly cooked" means heating the meat to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit. But handling or eating even undercooked pork wouldn't give you the flu—although you would risk trichinosis.

In fact, "swine flu" is something of a misnomer, as this virus seems to be a hybrid strain of avian and swine influenza.

Perhaps pigs should be afraid of us. Egypt's government decided this week to slaughter all pigs in the country, about 300,000 of the critters, although no cases of swine flu had been reported there and the virus is spreading from person to person. Jordan is taking similar measures. And while it's true that humans can pick up the virus from getting too close to infected animals, pig farmers point out that the converse is also true—and pigs don't have the luxury of lathering themselves in instant sanitizer every time they hear a sniffle nearby.

On the other hand, this crisis provides a useful prompt to take a hard look at industrial hog farming practices, or Controlled Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Grist writer Tom Philpott was quick to propose and follow up on a connection between the current epidemic and a particular CAFO in Mexico called Smithfield.

Whether or not that particular company is to blame isn't the most important point Philpott makes. He quotes a 2008 research paper on "Infectious Disease in Industrial Food Animal Production" that includes disturbing statistics like this:

In the U.S., it is estimated that 238,000 CAFOs produce 314 million metric tons of waste per year, which is 100 times as much biosolids produced by treating human wastewater. Global estimates suggest that 140 million metric tons of poultry litter and 460 million metric tons of swinewaste were produced in 2003, based on data from the Food and Agriculture Organization.

If not treated properly, that represents a major health risk. Consider this point in the same paper:

Pathogens can survive in untreated and land-disposed wastes from food animals for extended periods of time—between two and 12 months for bacteria, and between three and six months for viruses.

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