J. L. Anderson’s Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork, and Power in American History is on its way to bookstores and available now from our website and online retailers. A contribution to WVU’s publishing program in environment, agriculture, and food politics, the book is—according to Mark Essig, author of Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig—“the story of how pigs made America, and how America remade the pig.” In this piece drawn from his research for the book, Anderson looks at how consumer preferences and waste practices have intersected with health concerns about pork over the course of US history.
Fifteen or so years ago a waiter at a fashionable restaurant asked how I would like my pork loin cooked. “I beg your pardon?” I replied. The server clarified that I could have it prepared rare, medium, or well-done. Of course I knew about the different temperatures for preparing and serving meat. The problem was that for me, born in the 1960s, the very question was absurd. Pork was cooked until done or it wasn’t. People who grew up in my era knew that consuming rare pork was a health risk.
Why was “rare” pork a threat? I suspect that many Americans born before the 1970s could tell you that the risk was infection by the Trichinella spiralis parasite. Trichina worms mate in the gut of mammals and the juvenile worms migrate through the circulatory system and into muscle tissue. There, they mature in a cyst, thriving on the hosts for months and often causing discomfort and even pain for the host. If the infected host (perhaps a rat or pig) is subsequently consumed, then the process begins again. For humans, most trichina infections resulted from consuming infected meat (most notably pork) that was improperly cooked.
Trichina-infested pork, then, had been around a long time. Pork was much more likely to be the vector for trichina infection in people because pigs are omnivores, frequently utilized to convert waste into food. The use of pigs to consume household waste, including cooked and uncooked food scraps, was an age-old practice. In the seventeenth century, Gervase Markham labeled pigs as the “housewife’s most wholesome sink” because they consumed what other animals would not. On farms and in cities, then, pigs kept in a dooryard sty reduced waste and provided low-cost meat for the family.
Trichinae, however, became a significant public health problem in the United States. Pigs were so good at converting food waste that large-scale operations emerged to consume uneaten food or kitchen waste from restaurants and hotels as well as the by-products of manufacturing (from brewer’s mash to slaughterhouse offal). The process only accelerated as the nation became increasingly urban and industrial in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Pigs were so good at converting food waste that large-scale operations emerged to consume uneaten food or kitchen waste from restaurants and hotels as well as the by-products of manufacturing (from brewer’s mash to slaughterhouse offal).
Two world wars compounded the issue. During World War I, waste-conscious government bureaucrats looked at the amount of food waste and saw garbage feeding as a solution for meeting production goals. After the war, urban planners and elected officials accepted garbage feeding as a less expensive solution to waste than incineration or dumping. By 1940, in some areas over half of city waste was fed to hogs. High commodity prices during World War II boosted garbage feeding. As a result, by the mid-twentieth century the risks associated with trichinae were greater than ever.
The solution to the trichina problem, according to public health officials, was cooking food waste from hotels and restaurants prior to feeding it to hogs. This was also an aid to America’s hog cholera problem, a devastating plague for producers at that time. Home economists and other food experts also urged consumers to cook pork at a high enough temperature to destroy any hog cholera virus. Today, all garbage feeding operations are required by law to cook their waste to 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
But cooking waste was just one part of the trichina solution. The other part was cooking meat to 180 degrees Fahrenheit to kill any infective juvenile worms or larvae that might be present in the meat. For pork, this was not a major problem. Most fresh pork cuts were relatively fatty, which meant that cooking at a high temperature did not rob the meat of its flavor.
But at the same time that prescribed cooking temperatures went up to combat trichina, the meat industry reduced the amount of fat on the hog carcass. Concerns about the consumption of excess dietary fat and meat, coupled with America’s increasingly sedentary lifestyle, prompted farmers and meat packers to produce leaner hogs. Consumer preference tests indicated that housewives, the primary food purchasers, invariably selected leaner-looking meat in side-by-side comparisons. The industry responded quickly, making significant reductions in intramuscular fat and backfat by the 1970s and continuing to do so through the 1990s.
Consumer preference tests indicated that housewives, the primary food purchasers, invariably selected leaner-looking meat in side-by-side comparisons.
As hogs became leaner, however, pork was easier to overcook. Consumer complaints of dry, overcooked, and flavorless pork became a staple of the meat industry discourse during this period. Farmers and packers had met consumer expectations for lean meat but the cooking temperatures undermined their success. Pork cooked to 180 degrees was an unsatisfactory dining experience, resulting in recipes that smothered chops and other cuts in sauces, including those made from canned soups. The inadequacy of pork fueled the postwar turn to chicken, which had long been a high-status meat and one that was not associated with the health risks of beef and pork.
At the same time that the meat industry confronted its self-inflicted taste problem, cases of trichina declined rapidly. By the 1990s, fear of trichina had largely faded from public consciousness. The twentysomething waiter who offered me rare pork in the early years of this century had no memory of kitchen and dinner table discussions about making sure that the pork chop was thoroughly cooked and why. As of 2011, the USDA lowered the recommended internal temperature from 160 to 145 degrees Fahrenheit, which may result in pink or medium rare pork. With the diminished risk of trichina, the lower temperature is sufficient to kill the bacteria that constitute the most pervasive health risk of our day. Once something to be feared, pink pork is now fashionable, even normal at high-end restaurants. Even so, old habits die hard. I can’t help but throw those pink chops back on the grill for just a little bit more time. Yes, it tastes just fine, especially with a bit of salsa, and this author remains trichina-free in the twenty-first century.