Swine Flu: Is Cheap Meat to Blame?

One chef argues for the return of traditional farming methods.

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Today's guest entry comes from chef and ecologist Aaron French, whose work focuses on the connection that food forms "between humans and our environment." He has a master's degree in ecology, is the chef of the Sunny Side Cafe, and writes the EcoChef column for 10 newspapers in the San Francisco Bay area.

The recent outbreak of swine flu in Mexico and its spread to the United States gives us consumers one more clear reason to vote with our fork – and our wallets.

As I write this, the definitive cause of the influenza H1N1 outbreak remains uncertain. That said, all the most promising links point back to industrial farming, and confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in particular, as the most probable cause.

There are many reasons to believe that CAFOs aren’t necessarily a good bet for consumers. It has been well documented that they are responsible for water and air pollution, and now there is compelling evidence that links confined pig farms to Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA, a difficult to treat staph infection) as well as antibiotic-resistant E. coli.

One thing that CAFOs are good for is cheap meat. Particularly in this recession, some might argue that the issues listed above are a reasonable price to pay for a less expensive trip to the supermarket. And there’s no right or wrong answer to that question. It ultimately comes down to values.

What do we, as a nation of consumers, value? Do we value pork at the ultimate lowest price, no matter the cost? Do we instead value a healthy environment for our children to grow up in? I would argue that we can take a stand against agricultural practices that endanger the lives of our children.

And that stand is not political or ideological. It is simply practical: when at the store (or perhaps before you leave), look into where your meat is coming from, and buy from farms and sources that demonstrate responsibility. Look for words like “free-range” or “pastured” animals, these words are your clues to farmers who are raising animals with traditional methods.

But by going back to traditionally raised animals we are not turning our backs on the future. Instead, we are acknowledging that our short-lived experiment in raising animals out of their environment creates more problems than it solves.