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No, Pork is Not 'Safe'

By Neal Barnard, M.D.
This opinion piece was printed on May 12, 2009, in The Columbia Daily Tribune.

With swine flu spreading and the death toll climbing, one of the most common questions posed in news interviews is, "Is it safe to eat pork?" And essentially every expert du jour offers the same reassurance: "Yes, it's safe to eat pork." What they mean to say is that, yes, there might be cholesterol, fat, and trichinosis in a hunk of pig muscle, but it won’t give you influenza. That’s in a different part of the pig.

That doesn't mean pork is safe to eat. The impending swine flu pandemic is yet another wake-up call that it's time to eat differently. The last time Americans collectively hit the snooze button was in 2007, when the World Cancer Research Fund said that bacon, sausage, and, in fact, all red and processed meats, were strongly linked to colorectal cancer, one of the most common forms of cancer. These foods should have lost any favored status on our plates. The problem wasn't a flu virus; it was the meat itself that was unsafe.

The problem is not only cancer. Health authorities have long known that the fat and cholesterol in pork and similar products also contribute to heart disease, the leading killer of Americans. But many of us continue to consume these products at every meal, and our government pushes even more red and processed meat on us to boost big agribusiness. Just a few weeks ago, the USDA announced a plan to buy up $25 million worth of pork and dump it on the National School Lunch Program and other food programs.

To stop swine flu, we need to stop patronizing the pork industry. One-third to one-half of pigs on modern farms harbor flu viruses. And because a pig's body acts like a giant mixing bowl, combining flu viruses from birds, humans, and other pigs, it can churn out new influenza viruses to which we have no immune defenses. Pig viruses then pass to farmers, truckers, and slaughterhouse workers, then to their families, and eventually to their communities.

Many people do not eat pork for religious, ethical, or health reasons. If the rest of us followed suit, we would have a healthier population.

If no one ate pork, there would be no intensive hog farms creating new viruses. The more than 150 people killed by the virus in Mexico would still be alive today, a New York school would be open for class, and our evening news would be able to give its attention to something else.

If no one ate pork, we could save Tamiflu for unavoidable viruses, rather than using our supplies for an entirely preventable epidemic. That is important, because the more we use antivirals, the more chances viruses have of developing resistance—just as has already happened with previous antivirals.

If no one ate pork, people living downwind or downstream from hog farms would find their air and water rebounding. Animal rights advocates would not have to point out what we all know—that the animals suffer enormously. And hog farmers would not have to sully themselves with weak excuses for what goes on inside those smelly barns.  

It has been years since food companies began to produce veggie sausage that tastes at least as good as the pork variety. And no one ever has to ask, "Is it safe?"

Neal Barnard, M.D., is a nutrition researcher and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

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