Here’s a newspaper headline from earlier in the week: “Meal of black bear meat leads to rare trichinosis infection for Alaska man”
At least they wedged the word “rare” into the headline, since that’s often about the only part of the story readers notice.
According to a story in the Anchorage Daily News, Sean Sullivan, a 32-year-old oil platform worker from Nikiski, Alaska, was heading back to his cabin to sharpen a chain saw when he saw a bear trying to break in. Sullivan shot the bear with his pistol—reporting the killing to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the article noted—skinned the animal and stored the meat in freezer bags in a nearby river.
He told the newspaper the bear meat tasted delicious—“Like the best steak you’ve ever had,” he said. He claimed he cooked the meat to “something a little more than medium rare. But it obviously wasn’t enough.”
That’s because six weeks later, Sullivan started noticing “uncharacteristic soreness” in his legs and back, then an upset stomach, flu-like symptoms and a high fever. “He became sensitive to sound,” the article noted. “His eyes hurt. Then his wife found him in the bathtub in the middle of the night in the midst of a fever hallucination about snow machine repair.”
Hey, who hasn’t confronted their spouse in a similar situation, right?
A trip to the hospital and a diagnosis soon followed: Trichinosis, a disease caused by the larvae of the Trichinella spiralis roundworm present in infected raw or undercooked meat. The worm reproduces and eventually travels through arteries to forms cysts in muscle tissue.
It is decidedly not a pleasant condition to develop, and in fact it took weeks for Sullivan’s body to fight off the infection.
Sanitation’s the least of it
Which brings us to the part of the article known as the “service journalism” section. This is where the reporter pauses the story in order to provide some helpful tips to prevent others from suffering the same fate as the main character.
First, a little background: Between 2002 and 2007, an average of 11 cases of trichinosis were reported annually to CDC in the United States, most of which were the result of eating undercooked game meat or pork from pigs raised in someone’s backyard. But then the reporter decides to “interpret” the CDC data.
“In the United States, the number [of trichinosis cases] has dropped from 400 per year on average in the 1940s to 20 or fewer today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” the article stated. “That drop can be attributed to better sanitary practices in the pork industry and improved public awareness of the risks of eating raw or undercooked meat, the CDC says.”
No—the drop is decidedly not due to “better sanitary practices in the pork industry.” It is due to a complete and total reinvention of pork production, with biosecurity, professional veterinary care and scientific nutrition and management implemented virtually everywhere across the industry.
That’s not to say that guys who gun down bears on their front porch, then hack off hunks of the meat and store them in a nearby river before lightly singeing them to the accompaniment of liberal servings of alcohol aren’t going to wake up one night naked in the bathtub wailing about their broken-down snow machine.
For the rest of us, however, the risk of contracting trichinosis is virtually non-existent—especially if some of the meat of choice you slap onto your backyard grill happens to be commercial cuts of pork.
Yes, in Alaska trichinosis cases continue to crop up as result of people eating undercooked bear and walrus meat.
But referencing “better sanitary practices in the pork industry” is just wrong. It sends the wrong message, like the industry still has a ways to go in “cleaning up” the trichinosis problem, and it falsely reinforces to yet another generation of consumers that pork needs to be overcooked to the somewhere north of the consistency of well-tanned leather.
Of course, tough-guy Sullivan told the newspaper that he still feels like the top of the food chain: He’s planning to mount the bear’s hide on the wall in his home.
Along with the taxidermy, he might want to invest in a meat thermometer, too.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.