thisverytorahscrollThe original reasons for the prohibition of pork consumption in ancient Jewish and Islamic cultures were most likely practical, rather than spiritual. Unlike cows and chickens, which are vegetarian by nature and graze on grain (and also grass, in the case of cows), pigs are omnivorous scavengers that feed on anything they encounter, including garbage and carrion, and were thus deemed unclean. This turned out to be a prescient decision; thousands of years would pass between the banning of pork consumption in Leviticus 11:7 and the discovery of trichinosis in 1835 by a young London medical student named James Paget.

There were likely other reasons for the biblical banning of pork, both ecological and economical: namely, that pigs require plenty of water for the muddy coating in which they thrive and prefer shady woods environments — two things that were hard to come by in the desert land that is now Israel and the Middle East. And because pigs do not forage on grass (not that there was a lot of grass there, anyway), expensive grain meant for human consumption would have been diverted to raising them as livestock.

Luckily, modern day farming and food safety practices have eliminated the health concerns of our ancestors, right? 

It should be seen as no coincidence that the two most recent flu pandemics to emerge in recent history — avian flu and now, possibly, swine flu — bear the same names as the livestock raised via two of the largest and filthiest types of factory farms on the planet. 

Mike Davis, professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu, wrote yesterday in The Guardian about the acceleration of swine flu evolution:

Animal husbandry in recent decades has been transformed into something that more closely resembles the petrochemical industry than the happy family farm depicted in school readers. In 1965, for instance, there were 53 million US hogs on more than 1 million farms; today, 65 million hogs are concentrated in 65,000 facilities. This has been a transition from old-fashioned pig pens to vast excremental hells, containing tens of thousands of animals with weakened immune systems suffocating in heat and manure while exchanging pathogens at blinding velocity with their fellow inmates.

And journalist David Kirby, who is currently completing a new book on industrial animal production for St. Martin’s Press, reported Sunday in The Huffington Post on the link between CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) and swine flu:

For years, leading scientists around the world have worried that large-scale, indoor swine “factories” would become breeding grounds for new pathogens that could more easily infect humans and then spread out rapidly in the general population — threatening to become a global pandemic.

We know that hog workers in Europe and North America are far more likely than others to be infected with potentially lethal pathogens such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), drug-resistant E. coli and salmonella, and of course, swine influenza. Many scientists also believe that people who work inside CAFOs are more at risk of contracting and spreading these and other “zoonotic” diseases than those working in smaller-scale operations, with outdoor pens or pasture and far lower animal density.

Now, I didn’t highlight kosher dietary practices to suggest that the threat of swine flu makes the actual meat of pork unsafe to eat — at present, the CDC is advising that properly cooked pork is still safe for human consumption, and that you cannot catch swine flu from eating pork or pork products (although the prospect of a global swine flu pandemic certainly makes that morning bacon a wee bit unappetizing). But just as the ancient Jews and Muslims considered their surroundings and the consequences of raising pigs as livestock when formulating their dietary laws — insufficient environmental resources like water, unsanitary conditions that could lead to disease — we, too, must now seriously look at the environmental repercussions of widespread factory farming. And with the looming threat of a worldwide influenza pandemic that could very well have originated from the farming practices that supply your morning Egg McMuffin, we have to ask ourselves: Is it worth it?

–Jennifer Grayson

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One Response to “Swine flu and the origins of kosher law”

  1. Jessica Taylor Says:

    A few workers in our area got Salmonella poisoning. It is a good thing that they did not die and they have fully recovered. “

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