For centuries Jews and Muslims have banned the consumption of pork on the grounds of health. Although the exact reason why pork was banned is unclear, it is probably because the environment on pork tends to allow bacteria to multiple at a faster rate than other meats, which means that there is a greater risk of food poisoning.
But in the last 100 years technology has led to development of refrigeration and food science has taught us how to handle meat safely. So, why doesn’t everybody start eating pork again?
Recently there has been another report highlighting the dangers of processed meat. Although this covers all processed meat, including meat that is smoked, salted and cured, most of the processed meat that is eaten is pork, especially in places such as Great Britain and America.
Processed pork includes bacon, gammon, ham, sausages, sausage rolls, pork pies, salami, hot dogs, pepperoni (one of the most popular pizza toppings), Scotch eggs and last but not least, Spam. Yes, some people eat corned beef and smoked fish, but on the whole, it is pork that we are processing.
Why do we process so much pork? Well, it is a traditional part of a western diet for the very same reason that Jews and Muslims banned it. Processing pork by smoking or salting extends its lifespan considerably and this makes it much safer to eat.
What Jews say about pork
Pork has been banned by Jewish Law and has been classified as a “non-kosher” food. A kosker animal is one that is a ruminant (plant eater) and have split hooves. Pigs are happy to eat animals and their hooves are not split. Cows, sheep, goats and venison are all kosher.
The Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who was also the Muslim sultan Saladin’s doctor during the 12th Century, believed that pigs were filthy animals.
However, a more rational reason for banning pork may have been due to their agricultural requirements. Marvin Harris, an anthropologist, suggested that because pigs requires more water and a shaded environment to prosper they are not ideal in the semi-arid conditions that are common in the middle east.
Also, pigs are scavengers and will eat just about anything that they find. This includes rotting carcasses of other animals as well as vegetation, and this was considered unclean.
In the Book of Leviticus there is a passage regarding what food cannot be eaten:
11 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 2 “Say to the Israelites: ‘Of all the animals that live on land, these are the ones you may eat: 3 You may eat any animal that has a divided hoof and that chews the cud.
4 “‘There are some that only chew the cud or only have a divided hoof, but you must not eat them. The camel, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is ceremonially unclean for you. 5 The hyrax, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you. 6 The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you. 7 And the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. 8 You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.
What Islam says about pork
In Islam, people are allowed to eat pork if there is nothing else to eat. If a matter of choosing between pork and starvation, pork is allowed. However, it is actually unlikely that in a society where pigs are not bred for food there will never be any to eat should some people find themselves suffering a serious famine.
“He has only forbidden to you dead animals, blood, the flesh of swine, and that which has been dedicated to other than Allah . But whoever is forced [by necessity], neither desiring [it] nor transgressing [its limit], there is no sin upon him. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.”
Of course, neither the Jewish or the Islamic texts explain why pork is bad; it is likely that they just identified an association between an increased likelihood of ill-health and the consumption of pork, identified how pigs are different from other farmed animals and assumed that this was the reason.
Modern science has identified that pork is a good environment for the spread of bacteria, but it has also developed ways to stop this from occurring. Although the Jews and Muslims may not have understood why it was necessary to ban pork, they certainly identified that it was a problem.
At least, they would have recognized that it has short-term health risks, ie. food poisoning. They would not have identified its possible link with heart disease; science has only recently made this connection.
Processing of pork now redundant?
Sometimes people are critical of Jews and Muslims for ignoring the fact that refrigeration and hygienic food preparation methods have done away with the need to ban pork, but if this is the case, then refrigeration has also done away with the need to process pork.
Consider also the 2010 research that led Dr. Mozaffarian to state “Processed red meats—bacon, sausage, salami, deli meats—are associated with much higher risk of heart disease”, and also research by An Pan, PhD in 2012 that concluded “Red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of total, CVD, and cancer mortality. Substitution of other healthy protein sources for red meat is associated with a lower mortality risk.”
If the time between slaughter and cooking is kept to a minimum, with the freshly butchered meat kept in refrigeration the entire time, there seems to be little reason to process pork at all. But, is fresh pork really safe?
Fresh pork considered “unsafe”
If the report that spread through news sites such as Forbes and ABC News is correct, fresh pork often harbors a host of dangerous bacteria. The news reported originated from the Consumer Reports website. More recently, CBC News reported that E.coli in raw pork was linked with hundreds of people falling ill.
However, all meat can be dangerous. Poultry, beef and fish are not without their risks. Statistic Brain provides a risk index for a variety of foods and all meat / beer is rated as highest risk, with an risk index score of 0.23, just ahead of poultry that has a index score of 0.21. By contrast, salami and hams have a index score of 0.14, just ahead of seafood.
So in terms of food poisoning, even processed foods pose a risk similar to that of seafood. In fact, only in August, 12 people in Denmark died of listeria that originated in Danish pork sausages called Rullepølse.
Cooking kills bacteria
Mind you, all this being said, cooking food thoroughly is an effective way to kill off all harmful bacteria on meat. Pork is one of the few meats that are never served rare (chicken is similar in this respect). Beef and many types of fish can safely be served raw, although people do also become ill after eating sushi, rare beef and carpaccio.
Is L-carnitine a long-term health risk?
However, it is not just about food poisoning. Recent studies has linked L-carnitine in red meat with various health conditions, and it is thought that L-carnitine may be part of the reason why frequent consumption of red meat is often linked with early death.
This may actually be far more important than the food poisoning risk – somebody may eat red meat their entire life without catching a food bug, but eventually die from heart disease caused by the consumption of red meat. Daniel Pendick explains that the action of gut bacteria on L-carnitine results in a compound called trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO), which in turn is linked with clogged arteries and heart attack.
Can we live without pigs?
It is hard to imagine a world without farmed pigs – a large part of the global farming stock is sent for processing – but if processed pork is so bad for health, with or without a fridge, we really should seriously considering stopping it.
My wife and I made the decision to stop buying processed meat, and this mostly means no more bacon, ham, sausage rolls and pepperoni pizza. We do still have it occasionally when visiting friends, but it is no longer in our fridge.
The jury is still out on freshly butchered pork; some studies suggest that there may still be certain properties that are less healthy. All red meat has been linked with increase risk of colon cancer as well as heart disease. But overall, it appears to be the processed stuff that is killing people today. Fresh pork is probably only dangerous if outdated butchering methods are used, combined with poor hygiene and refrigeration.
The bottom line is that eating too much of anything is bad for us and just about every type of meat, fish or seafood has at some point in time led to a health scare. But, if you want to make one change to your diet that will probably result in a longer life with less illness, then giving up pork, both fresh and processed, is certainly worth considering.
The big advantage of this approach is that you can still eat steak and burgers, although some days I could kill for a bacon sandwich :)
Harris, Marvin (1987). The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig: Riddles of Food and Culture. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 67–79. ISBN 0671633082.
New study links L-carnitine in red meat to heart disease by Daniel Pendick, Executive Editor, Harvard Men’s Health Watch, Harvard Health Blog.
Red Meat Consumption and Mortality by An Pan, PhD; and others. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(7):555-563. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.2287.
Red and Processed Meat Consumption and Risk of Incident Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes Mellitus by Renata Micha, RD, PhD; Sarah K. Wallace, BA; Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH. Circulation. 2010; 121: 2271-2283
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