You might be surprised by this, but a century ago, pork used to be comfortably the most consumed meat in the world. And despite the billion articles connecting bacon to cancer that have spawned since then, it still is.
As of now, pork rules the roost with a 35% share of the global meat market, with a slim lead over poultry.
The truth is, pork has always been up against it with the critics, long before Upton Sinclair’s cynical piece on the pork industry hit the papers in 1908. To see where and why the pork hate began, we’re going to take this all the way back to the birth of civilization.
Is Pork Paleo?
Pork has been a mainstay in the human diet for many a millenia, stretching back to the dawn of the Neolithic Age, and with it, the first agricultural revolution. As for the times before we got domesticated by grains, there’s scant evidence to suggest that our hunter-gatherer ancestors made a regular meal of the pig’s progenitor, the wild boar.
There’s a good reason for that. Boar hunting is a time-honoured ritual for proving one’s strength and in most cases, manhood. Boars are feral creatures with tough hides and dense skulls that easily absorb most blows. WIth old age, they also develop cartilage over their ribs that can even deflect bullets.
And as if all that fancy armour didn’t make the hunt tricky enough, boars are more than happy to whip into the attack when cornered, charging at the assailant with razor-sharp tusks and battering rams. Such an expedition could easily prove fatal.
So it’s understandable why our paleolithic ancestors were reluctant to go chasing after wild boars. Especially when they had humongous beasts like the woolly mammoth lumbering around the neighborhood.
More meat, more fat, easier to track, and far easier to trap. Despite the ridiculous difference in size, mammoth’s didn’t stand a chance against a coordinated attack from a tribe of Homo Erectus. That’s why the megafauna remained the centerpiece of the evolutionary diet, until they were hunted beyond their ability to reproduce.
With the mammoths and company dwindling or wiped out, our ancestors had to turn to smaller prey. But they still wouldn’t have spent much time chasing wild boars, because horses, gazelles, and deer were much less daunting propositions. In paleolithic sites, wild boar consistently make up around just 1-5% of animal bones.
It wouldn’t be quite right to label pork as an ancestral food, because they weren’t worth the trouble for our hunter-gatherers. But that changed with the rise of the Neolithic revolution, and the creep of pastoralism and agriculture. Wild boars were domesticated and turned into pigs around 8000 BC across two separate regions, in the Near East, and China.
Chances are, a few wild boars just got comfortable living around settlements, had their fear of humans gradually eroded, and our ancestors wised up and capitalised to score a reliable food source.
Eventually, those wild boars were selectively bred into becoming a new species. Pigs reproduce very quickly, and are completely at ease living in urbanised areas, making them perfectly suited to intensive farming in heavily populated areas with a lack of agricultural land.
And that was how pigs began their path to becoming one of the most successful species on earth.
When The Pork Hate Began
As the first cities arose from the fertile soil of Mesopotamia around 4000 BC, pork quickly became a staple. That was also when the scrutiny of pork began to form. The issue was that pigs didn’t provide much else than meat.
Whereas ruminants like cattle and sheep offered additional commodities like milk and wool. Donkeys and horses were great at pulling things. All this meant that pigs weren’t such a great resource, and the elite would much rather put their riches into ruminants and equids.
In addition to that, the fact that pigs were suited for cities, and readily ate anything in sight, meant that they formed an unfortunate connection with human waste. So with the arrivals of the Old Testament and the Quran, pork fell prey to politics. It became ‘unclean’, enabling the elite to promote the use of ruminants and equids, while sabotaging the pig market.
There was another factor at play with the writing of pig-hate into the Old Testament. The Israelites, the ancestors of the Jews and the authors of the Bible, were pastoral herders, and thereby didn’t eat much if any pork.
They were also coming up against many tribes who did, in the form of the Canaanites. The Old Testament was a way to codify a sense of Israelite identity that separated them from other peoples in the Levant. Banning pork was an excellent way to instil that ‘us vs them’ mentality.
As for the Quran, that was Muhammad and Co latching onto Jewish laws, and recasting some of them as their own, a millenia later.
And despite being shunned altogether by some religious populations, pigs never stopped being popular. The Greeks and Romans continued to feast on pork, and Christians inherited that fondness.
Meat production is ultimately driven by necessity rather than ethics, and the dietary flexibility of pigs matched up well with rapid growth of urban populations. To tap that off, pork was, and still is, delicious. Those ethics have remained in the cultural consciousness, but so has pork.
In summation, pigs were an easy target thanks to the lack of additional commodities, and their urban living conditions. They made it on the blacklist of two of the influential books of all time, which suspiciously came at the benefit of the rich, who didn’t put much stock in pigs.
But it was also an opportune moment for the authors of the Old Testament to forge an Israelite identity by honouring their pastoral traditions, an act that the Quran eventually followed.
From there, it managed to persist until modernity due to one simple reason: tradition. Jews and Muslims shun pork because of their parents, and their communities. It’s weaved into their identity. Cultural conflicts have only increased the strength of those traditions. The pork hatred lives on, generation after generation.
Pork In Modernity
When Upton Sinclair released his expose on the nasty conditions of the meatpacking industry in 1906, pork took another hit, and the plant-based revolution went into the ascendancy.
The second blow came in 1978, when Ancel Keys published the Seven Countries Study, where cherry-picked correlations linked red meat inextricably to high cholesterol and heart disease.There were a few issues with this revelation.
1. It was based on questionnaires that assumed people could accurately recall what they ate a year ago.
2. Countries that didn’t support the correlation were excluded from the results.
3. Food cholesterol doesn’t even reliably impact blood cholesterol.
4. High cholesterol hasn’t been proven to cause atherogenesis.
So there wasn’t much of a leg for Dr. Keys to stand on, but that didn’t stop him from having a seismic influence on the public nutritional agenda. Since red meat is naturally high in cholesterol, they received the short end of the stick in subsequent government guidelines.
Bacon in particular has been linked to colon cancer, with a 20% risk being thrown across many a startling headline. Once again based on questionnaires, and a manipulation of the data. In reality, the risk was elevated from 5% to 6%. Technically an increase of 20%, but not over a margin that’s worth losing sleep over.
Alongside the purported health issues of eating, there was the issue of factory farming, which first entered the limelight back in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. SInce pigs reproduce so quickly, and can be slaughtered well in advance of cattle and sheep, they became the ideal candidate for intensive farming. Alongside their primary competition, chickens.
Chances are you’ll be familiar with the images of farrowing sows being trapped under metal bars, and pig excrement being leaked into rivers. These aren’t ideal, and factory farming certainly has its issues.
But it has to be noted that images like that are forms of emotional manipulation, and not representative of the industry as a whole, especially in countries like the UK.
Sow stalls, for instance, have been banned here since 1999. Antibiotics for growth promotion have been banned since 2006. You just might need to make sure that your supermarket isn’t importing their pork from outside the UK.
A few reasons why people hate pork
- Perceived as an ‘unclean’ animal due to its urban habitat
- Marginalised by the rich for being a weak commodity, lacking in wool and dairy
- Rejected by Jewish and Muslim cultures in order to preserve their pastoral roots
- Persisted through religion as a result of devotion to tradition
- Inflamed by the red meat scrutiny and factory farming practices
Pork has been under constant assault since the first cities arose in the Near East. Science and ethics have since wrenched the baton from tradition. The world’s most popular meat will always have its critics. Some of it earned, most of it less so. It’s not quite beef, but it’s still miles better than importing blood-soaked Avocados from Mexico to prop up a vegan diet.
And as anyone who’s sampled air-fried pork belly can attest, it does taste good.
As for the burning question of pork’s place in the carnivore cuisine, that’s going to have to wait till the next article.