Friday, February 29, 2008

Pigs and the Blood Thinner Heparin

My mom had a knee-replacement surgery last year and one of the drugs she was given to prevent clots was called heparin. She had to be tested regularly to make sure she didn't have too high or too low of a dose. I hadn't given the medicine much thought until I read this morning's New York Times, which had a front-page article by Walt Bogdanich headlined "Blood Thinner Might Be Tied to More Deaths" (here). My mom is not taking heparin at the moment, but I was still interested. To my surprise, I learned that most heparin is derived from pig intestines. In fact, as Bogdanich notes, some of the recent problems associated with heparin perhaps stem from the unregulated Chinese family workshops that scrape the mucous membrane from pig's intestines then bake it into a crude form of heparin that is later refined. Near the end of his article, Bogdanich writes "the Chinese heparin market has been in turmoil over the last year, as pig disease has swept through the country, depleting stocks, leading some farmers to sell sick pigs into the market and forcing heparin producers to scramble for new sources of raw material." Not all heparin comes from pigs, of course; much of it comes from bovine tissue as well. There have been over 400 adverse reactions to heparin, although it's not clear how many deaths have resulted, as the people receiving this anticoagulant are often awfully sick to begin with. While the health issues are obviously paramount here, I'm sure glad my mom is not a vegetarian or vegan, although if she were, how would she know about the source of this medicine and what other options might there have been?

The photo above accompanied a Wall Street Journal article "Making Heparin is a Dirty Job," which I found here. It is an interesting and kinda disgusting account of Chinese heparin factories.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Wooly Pigs in the Pacific Northwest

My friend Annie in New Zealand sent me a link to the Wooly Pigs Blog, run by Heath and Zuzana Putnam, now of Spokane, Washington. They have imported a herd of wooly Mangalitsa pigs and raise them in the "European style"--outside, with no drugs, hormones, chemicals and eating a natural diet. You can read more about their operation and the pork they produce for sale to consumers and high-end restaurants here.

I first found out about them via a blog entry on the topic "Are we nice to the animals?" which you can find here. The most interesting thing I gleaned from the discussion, something I've read of elsewhere, is the independent farmer's lament that he has to use USDA-approved facilities to slaughter his animals, where the animals receive perhaps their worst treatment. Given what we've learned here in Los Angeles about the treatment of cattle at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company (see the L.A. Times article about America's largest meat recall here) I'm not surprised that they feel that way.

All in all, the Wooly Pigs websites are great reads. If eating pork is your thing, perhaps check them out.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Tigers & Piglets: An Urban Legend Explained

One of my students sent me an e-mail over the break with photos of a tigress nursing piglets in little tiger costumes. According to the e-mail, forwarded under the title "A lesson in world peace among divergent cultures (and religions)," this scene took place at a zoo in California. Before the images and the "story," it reads: "Once more my faith in animals grows stronger. We could learn so much from them. Imagine!" After the photos, this version of the e-mail ends with "Now, please tell me one more time... Why can't the rest of the world get along?"

I told my student that I'd seen these before and wanted to check out the story. Thankfully, came to the rescue yet again, letting me know that these were real photos, but with an inaccurate description. You can read the full story here, but in brief, I received an even more recent e-mail than the one Snopes addressed; they discuss one that made the rounds in which the tigress was supposedly given these piglets as a treatment for depression after losing her own cubs. As it turns out, these images come from the Sriracha Tiger Zoo in Thailand, where this is apparently a common form of visual entertainment for zoo patrons.

There have been a lot of problems at, and concerns about this zoo: the Animal Welfare Institute has noted that this zoo has been investigated for illegally breeding and selling its tigers for use in Chinese medicines and that somewhere around 80 to 100 tigers died at the zoo due to an outbreak of avian influenza. I guess this type of creation of a story and a heavily-forwarded e-mail around an image isn't all that surprising--just look at how much has been made out of Barack Obama's decision to be a good guest on a visit to Kenya.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Le Cochon Danseur

Here is a wonderful and strange film from 1907, the Pathé short "Le Cochon Danseur." According to the IMDB it should be about four minutes long; someone has edited the YouTube version down to these key moments, I suppose. I've been watching a lot of early American films lately for my cultural history course and was glad I found this one. Enjoy. For those of you fluent in French, there is a brief wikipedia article about the film here.

Labels: ,

Friday, February 08, 2008

“I always had brains on my arms”: A Medical Mystery in Minnesota

The New York Times ran an incredibly interesting (and disgusting) story about a mysterious illness striking workers at Quality Pork Processors in Minnesota. Denise Grady's piece "A Medical Mystery Unfolds In Minnesota" (here) describes an illness that ultimately struck 12 workers. A bit of epidemiological detective work led to the tentative conclusion that the thing all these workers had in common was "blowing brains," the process at the "head table" where hogs' brains are blasted out of their skulls with compressed air so that they can be barreled and sold overseas. As Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the Minnesota State Epidemiologist noted, this produces "aerosolization of brain tissue" which then created an immune system response in the workers exposed to it. The Times article is well worth reading in full. As it turns out, most of the workers are getting better now that steps have been taken to reduce the exposure to "aerosolized pig brains" and a course of treatment for the neurological symptoms has been discovered.

Image of Quality Pork Processors by Nate Howard for The New York Times.

Labels: , ,

Friday, February 01, 2008

Pig Cars and Pork-Barrel Political Protest

The graphic design company Sagmeister, Inc. completed this project for True Majority (the social justice group led by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's fame). The pig-shaped van, complete with trailing piglets, compares the Pentagon budget with that for education and foreign aid, obviously advocating more funds for the latter than the former. There are a couple of great pictures of these vehicles, which light up at night, here on the Sagmeister site as well. Thanks to Lisa for finding this and sending it along.

Labels: ,