Trichinella sp.

My late father was a physician fresh out of medical school when he encountered a patient with symptoms that baffled his more experienced colleagues. The patient suffered from fever, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, muscle soreness, headache, stomachache, and eye swelling. None of the older doctors could diagnose his ailment, and the young teenager appeared to be on the verge of death. In desperation they consulted with my father, and he recognized the symptoms of trichinosis, a parasite infection caused by roundworms in the trichinella genus. At first the teenager denied eating undercooked pork, but then he admitted to tasting uncooked pork sausage. He was treated with life-saving anti-parasite medications. The boy’s father happened to be a gangster who worked for the mafia, and after this incident my dad liked to brag the mafia would get him anything he wanted in gratitude. My dad also liked to think his help influenced the boy not to follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead of becoming a gangster, he chose dentistry as his profession.

Lifecycle of a trichinella round worm parasite. Image from the CDC.
Image of trichinella cysts in human muscle tissue. From a medical encyclopedia.

Carnivores, humans, pigs, and rodents spread trichinella worms when they consume meat infested with roundworm cysts. Digestive juices in the small intestine activate the cysts, freeing the roundworms from encasement within the cyst. The parasites pierce the lining of the small intestine and enter the blood stream where they burrow into muscles, mate, and lay eggs that become cysts, waiting to get eaten. How sick an animal gets depends on how many cysts are ingested and how strong the animal’s immune system is. An ingestion of highly infested meat can be fatal because the trichinella worms will also burrow into heart, lungs, brain, and eye tissues. Doctors diagnose trichinosis by taking a muscle biopsy and exposing it to digestive juices. If roundworms are activated, the patient is considered to have trichinosis. Patients are treated with anti-parasite medications including mehendozole or albendozole.

Trichinella is supposedly absent from pork raised in the U.S. and western Europe because modern pigs are fed a clean grain-based diet and are kept in sanitary cages where they don’t have the opportunity to eat dead rats. This hasn’t always been the case. During the middle of the 20th century, trichinella was widespread among domesticated pigs. One study in 1947 of 5000 people found trichinella roundworms in 16.1% of the population. The infestation rate was particularly high in New York City during the 1930s because New Jersey pigs were fed restaurant garbage with trichinella-infested meat and rats. An average of 400 cases of trichinosis were diagnosed every year during the middle of the 20th century, and this figure is likely an undercount because trichinosis symptoms mimic flu symptoms. Many people with trichinosis probably thought they had the flu. As late as the 1960s, 2.2% of Americans had trichinella parasites in their bodies.

New cases of trichinosis in the U.S. average about 20 a year now, and these are from hunters who consume undercooked wild boar or bear. The CDC recommends cooking meat to an internal temperature of 180 degrees F to kill trichinella, though other sources say temperatures as low as 120 degrees F are adequate. Freezing meat at 5 degrees F for 10 days will kill Trichinella spiralis, but freezing does not kill other species of trichinella, and these species are more likely to be found in wild game.

I ate wild boar last week. Sprouts Market sells Durham Ranch products, and this company sources wild boar from Texas. I made wild boar papardelle–a dish reportedly popular in the Tuscan region of Italy. To make wild boar papardelle, marinate 1 lb of ground or finely chopped wild boar in 1 cup of Burgundy and 1 TBL of rosemary overnight. Put a carrot, onion, and chopped garlic in a food processor and grind them up. Remove the meat from the marinade and brown it in an electric skillet, while sautéing the chopped vegetables. Mix the vegetables with the meat and add the marinade and a 6 ounce can of tomato paste. Let this simmer, then add cooked egg noodles. In Tuscany parmesan cheese is not added, but my wife and daughter wanted it on their servings. The meat tastes of wine and tomato paste, and any meat would probably taste the same with this recipe.

Wild boar should be cooked thoroughly. Unlike pigs raised in modern sanitary conditions, wild boar can ingest trichinella parasites.
Wild boar papardelle is reportedly a popular dish in the Tuscany region of Italy. It’s easy to make.
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