Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Pigs as food and victims

Pig farm in Vampula, Finland. Photo by kallerna on Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 4.0.

The domestic pig descends from the wild boar. Domesticated around 7000 BC in the Near East and East Asia, it currently accounts for over 36% of the world’s meat intake. Each year in the United States alone, the average person consumes about fifty pounds of pork as bacon, ham, sausages, pork chops, ribs, and other meat dishes. The Romans revered the pig as a symbol of abundance, and the Chinese celebrate the Lunar New Year with imagery of the pig, a symbol of good fortune, depending on the year. Cultural implications of eating pork differ in different countries. In the United States, bacon is a favored breakfast item; in Germany, pork sausages such as bratwurst are popular culinary items.

Nutritionally, pork offers many advantages. It is high in protein, vitamins, and minerals. Lean cuts of pork such as tenderloin can be relatively low in fat and calories, making them a suitable option for those seeking a balanced diet. To avoid the transmission of foodborne illnesses, notably trichinosis, pork must be carefully prepared and cooked to at least 145° F (63° C). Eating pork that is fresh and unprocessed minimizes the consumption of excessive quantities of sodium and carcinogenic nitrites.

Because of some of their habits and diets, including eating carrion and refuse, as well as wallowing in the mud, pigs have acquired a bad name and are regarded unclean. To be as fat as a pig is an insult, and so is to eat like a pig, meaning to be dirty, fat, greedy, gluttonous, or otherwise objectionable. Yet pigs are similar to dogs, intelligent social creatures who form strong bonds, love to play, and have good long-term memories.

It is accordingly a matter of concern that most pigs raised for meat endure extreme confinement and suffering in factory farms. Over 90% of pigs in the U.S. are intensively farmed, forced to live in cramped, unsanitary conditions without access to the outdoors. Pig farming has also been perceived as an environmental concern as it generates massive amounts of waste that pollute the air, soil, and water. Hog waste lagoons emit noxious fumes and can contaminate groundwater with toxic runoff. The intensive farming of pigs relies on large quantities of water and feed crops like corn and soy, contributing to water scarcity and deforestation. These considerations may have perhaps led to chickens partially supplanting pigs as a more acceptable and efficient source of meat.

Religious and cultural taboos surrounding pork consumption are also noteworthy. Major religions like Judaism and Islam forbid pork due to restrictions outlined in their scriptures. Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher and court physician to the Muslim Sultan Saladin in the twelfth century, understood the dietary laws chiefly as a means of keeping the body healthy. He argued that the meat of forbidden animals, birds, and shellfish is unwholesome. He thought that pork did not appear to be harmful, but thought that the pig is a filthy animal whose consumption would lead to marketplaces and even houses being dirtier than latrines.

Thus, eating pork remains a contentious subject. Its consumption affects the environment and raises questions about the humane treatment of animals, with some individual groups even opting for reducing or eliminating meat consumption altogether.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Spring 2024



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