The threat of a long-forgotten parasite returning in the form of contaminated meat from organically raised livestock has made some waves in the medical community.

Not so much within animal agriculture.

It’s not like conventional producers and processors are going to launch some kind of mud-slinging campaign to demonize organic operators. Unfortunately, that’s typically what the organic industry does: Pretend that conventional meat and dairy products are suspect, perhaps even dangerous, due to the fact that livestock  not raised organically are “pumped full” of drugs and hormones.

The study, published in the May 22 issue ofClinical Infectious Diseases, found that organic meat can be a source of Toxoplasmosis gondii, a single-celled parasite that used to be a significant problem in undercooked pork—like, 50 years ago.

When pigs were allowed to forage for food back in the good old days of non-corporate, family farming, they often ate food contaminated with infected feces from cats—the definitive host for the parasite—or consumed wild animals or birds that contained toxoplasmosis oocysts. That’s why the “tradition” of overcooking pork to a leathery well-done texture became established. It was necessary destroy parasites in all the pork.

However, when pork farmers converted to modern methods of production to eliminate foraging and began feeding the animals a scientifically devised diet, the incidence of toxoplasmosis was drastically reduced. With many organic producers, the trend is toward raising free-range animals—especially pigs and lamb—and that’s renewed the risk of contracting toxoplasmosis. Indeed, wild game, such as venison, is considered a potentially significant source of the toxoplasmosis parasite.

“The new trend in the production of free-range, organically raised meat could increase the risk of Toxoplasma gondii contamination of meat,” the authors wrote.

The researchers pointed out that eating undercooked meat, especially pork, lamb and wild game, is one of the main ways people become infected with the toxoplasma parasite.

The symptoms of toxoplasmosis include swollen lymph glands, aches and pains that can linger as long as a month at a time and a feeling of illness similar to what usually accompanies the flu. Although clinical treatment is usually not needed in normal, healthy people, some patients do require medication. Many people carry the parasite but do not become ill or show symptoms because their immune systems are able to withstand any toxic effects.

The real danger is that the parasite can infect the placenta and the fetus in pregnant women, causing stillbirth and neurological damage.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, toxoplasmosis infections cause 4,000 hospitalizations and as many as 300 deaths annually in the United States.

The threat of parasitic presence is greatest in raw ground beef, rare cooked lamb, unpasteurized goat’s milk, wild game and raw shellfish such as clams, mussels, and oysters. That’s one of the primary reasons why USDA recommends final internal cooked temperatures of:

  • 145 degrees F (with a three-minute standing time) for whole-muscle cuts of pork chops, pork roasts, lamb chops and beef roasts
  • 160 degrees F for all ground meats
  • 165 degrees F for all poultry

Freezing meat at sub-zero temperatures for several days can reduce the Toxoplasmosis oocysts in contaminated meat but it’s not fail safe, not to mention that most household freezers are incapable of keeping temperatures that low.

In the end, the threat of contracting a disease that’s rarely fatal and relatively rare—even in organic meats—isn’t going to get any organic aficionados too upset. Nor should it.

For all the hype with which the organic industry loves to cover itself, its value is that of a niche market that helps keep smaller producers in business and offers consumers who might otherwise abandon animal proteins an alternative that keeps them in the carnivores’ camp.

That is of value to the public and to the industry.

The threat of a microscopic parasite shouldn’t be a reason to undermine any of that.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.