“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” – 1 Cor. 10:31
We Christians are told to honor our bodies as God's temple (1 Cor. 6:19-20), to present our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1), and to glorify God in our eating and drinking (1 Cor. 10:31). We are not to make a god of our stomach. (Phil. 3:17-19) God is glorified by temperate eating of moderate amounts of wholesome food. God is dishonored when we indulge appetite, eating foods that we know are not the best.
As Seventh-day Adventist Christians, we understand that there is a connection between health and spirituality. “Let none who profess godliness regard with indifference the health of the body, and flatter themselves that intemperance is no sin, and will not affect their spirituality. A close sympathy exists between the physical and the moral nature.”—Review & Herald, Jan. 25, 1881.
Christians are not bound by the dietary laws that governed the Hebrews. (See, e.g., Mark 7:14-23; Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 10:25-27; 1 Tim. 4:3-5, Titus 1:15.) The Jews regarded the food regulations as vital elements of ritual purity and holiness (See, e.g., Acts 10:9-16; 11:5-10), but Christ stated that food does not defile. (Mark 7:18-20) Hence, Christians do not view the Old Testament food regulations as they were viewed by the Jews. For the Christian, the issue is health. God wants us to have life and to have it more abundantly. (John 10:10) He wants us not to burden those around us but to bless them. He wants us to have a clear mind with which to comprehend spiritual truths.
Although Christians are not under the ceremonial laws, these laws contained a greater than human wisdom, which has now been verified by modern scientific research. God wanted his children to avoid the diseases that are brought on by eating the wrong kinds of animals. (Ex. 15:26; 23:25; Deut. 7:15) Ellen White tells us that:
“the distinction between articles of food as clean and unclean was not a merely ceremonial and arbitrary regulation, but was based upon sanitary principles. To the observance of this distinction may be traced, in a great degree, the marvelous vitality which for thousands of years has distinguished the Jewish people.” PP. 562.
We would do well to re-examine the Bible's guidance on food with an eye to identifying important health principles.
Clean and Unclean Animals in the Bible
In Leviticus 11, God instructed Moses regarding which animals may be eaten. Of land animals, those that both (1) have a cloven or split hoof and (2) chew the cud (ruminants) could be eaten. This restricts the edible land animals to a particular type of herbivore that includes cattle, sheep, goat, deer, and gazelle. (Deut. 14:4-5) It excludes some animals that have commonly been used for food, such as rabbits and pigs, as well as predators (canines, felines, and ursines) “creeping things” (reptiles, amphibians, and rodents) and any animal that feeds on carrion. (Lev. 11:4-8, 27-31, 41-42)
Of water-dwelling creatures, the requirement for edibility is that they have both fins and scales. (Lev. 11:9-12) This excludes catfish (no scales), bivalves (clams, oysters, scallops, etc.), crustaceans (crabs, lobsters, shrimp, crayfish, prawns, etc.), and cephalopods (squid, octopus, cuttlefish), as wells as sharks, rays, skates, eels, congers, sturgeon, swordfish, etc.
Of flying animals, the unclean animals were birds of prey or raptors (eagles, owls, hawks, kites, etc.) carrion eaters (vultures, condors), water birds (ospreys, cormorant, stork, heron, etc.), and the bat (which is not a bird but a mammal of the order Chiroptera—hand-wing). (Lev. 11:13-19) (Ducks are not specifically mentioned, and there are arguments for and against them; some Jews consider them clean, some do not.) All insects are unclean, except for those with jointed legs for hopping, including the locust, katydid, cricket and grasshopper (so John the Baptist was within the law to eat locusts and wild honey). (Lev. 11:20-23; Mat. 3:4)
These laws were presented as part of Israel's religious or holiness obligations (Lev. 11:43-45), but they are based upon sound principles of health and safety. God outlawed the consumption of scavengers and carrion eaters that feed on decaying flesh. Likewise, He forbade the consumption of predatory animals, which typically eat the weakest and slowest among a group of prey animals, which often are weakest because they are diseased. As to marine animals, bottom dwellers that scavenge for dead animals or consume decaying organic matter that sinks to the sea floor are excluded from human consumption. These animals fill a vital ecological niche—cleaning up dead things and waste matter—but in His love and wisdom, God directed His children not to eat these animals.
Diseases Caused or Spread by Unclean Animals
Many deadly diseases have taken their toll on mankind because humans use unclean animals for food. The 1918 influenza epidemic killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people (between three (3%) and six percent (6%) of the world's population), and has been called “the mother of all pandemics.” It is believed to have been caused by a near ancestor of the H1N1 flu virus, which originates in birds and then mutates in pig populations. Humans are at risk of infection with this virus when they handle pigs and pork. The H1N1 virus, and various closely related mutations of it, regularly break out into the human community because of humans' insistence on having contact with pigs and other unclean animals.
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which has killed an estimated 30 million people worldwide, is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), which has been traced to “bush meat” activities, the hunting and selling of monkeys for food in Africa. It is believed that the simian version of the virus (SIV), if repeatedly transmitted to a human host, will mutate into the deadly human strain. Like AIDS, Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever (Ebola), the current outbreak of which has already killed over 5,500 people, mostly in West Africa, is also believed to come from “bush meat” activities, particularly the handling and eating of fruit bats. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), an airborne viral disease that during a 2003 outbreak killed 775 people, was traced to the handling and eating of unclean animals in China, such as the civet cat and the horseshoe bat.
Cholera causes over 100,000 deaths per year, and historically has had outbreaks that have killed millions. The bacterium that causes Cholera, Vibrio cholerae, is typically found in marine estuary ecologies with brackish water. Although it is usually transmitted to humans through contaminated drinking water, it is also spread to humans by the handling and eating of animals that live in estuary environments, particularly shellfish and crustaceans.
In the wake of the Ebola outbreak, the Obama administration has requested $600 million for the Center for Disease Control to implement a “Global Health Security Agenda,” which aims to shore up disease detection in high-risk countries and guard against, or provide an early warning of, the next epidemic. But that money would be better spent in an international advertising campaign aimed at raising awareness of the problems associated with handling and eating unclean animals. We could at least warn against “bush meat,” and convince farmers not to feed dead birds to their pigs, thus transferring the H1N1 and variant flu viruses to the animals and then to humans.
God directed that we are not even to touch the unclean animals. (Lev. 11:8, 24-25, 28) God was very explicit in stating that such animals must not come into contact with cooking pots or utensils, nor with water used for cooking. (Lev. 11:32-35) With our modern knowledge of microbiology and epidemiology, it is easy to see how God intended these regulations to prevent the spread of diseases like swine flu, AIDS, Ebola, and many others. If these regulations had been widely embraced, instead of being treated as the Jews' private patrimony, untold suffering and death could have been avoided. Even today, new epidemics are continually erupting because of our refusal to observe God's sanitary principles regarding what animals are fit to eat.
Health Problems Caused by Eating Unclean Meat
One of the risks of eating pork is Trichinosis—playing the unwilling host to the parasitic roundworm Trichinella. Laws regulating commercial pig-farming have reduced Trichinosis in the U.S. to fewer than 20 new cases a year, but worldwide there are many thousands of new cases a year, including a reported 10,000 per year in China, and a high incidence in Eastern Europe. It is estimated that over 11 million people are infected with Trichinella worldwide. Trichinosis is rarely fatal (a WHO study attributed only 42 deaths to Trichinosis between 1986 and 2009), but the infection causes serious discomfort; symptoms include swelling around the eyes, bleeding under the nails, gastroenteritis, muscle pain, fever, soreness, and bleeding from the conjunctiva and eyes. Trichinosis is frequently misdiagnosed, because its symptoms, especially in its early stages, track with those of many other diseases and conditions.
The problems with pork are not limited to Trichinosis. According to a 2012 investigation by Consumer Reports, 69% of all raw pork samples tested were contaminated with Yersinia enterocolitica, a microbe that causes fever and gastrointestinal illness, with diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach cramps. A fifth of the pork tested positive for ractopamine, a controversial agent for boosting lean muscle growth that is banned in several countries. Likely due to the widespread use of antibiotics in commercial farming, many of the bacteria that Consumer Reports found in the pork were resistant to multiple antibiotics, making any infection of humans difficult to treat.
There are serious problems with eating shellfish. Over 7 million people in the U.S. are allergic to shellfish, with most allergies developing in adulthood. Those who are allergic and who are exposed to shellfish can go into potentially fatal anaphylactic shock. In the U.S., shellfish allergies kill 150 to 200 people each year, and cause over 30,000 emergency room visits. Anyone diagnosed with shellfish allergy should carry an epinephrine syringe with them at all times.
In addition to shellfish allergies, there is shellfish poisoning, which is caused by a buildup of toxins from the tiny sea creatures that shellfish eat. The toxins responsible for most shellfish poisonings are water-insoluble and heat and acid-stable; hence ordinary cooking methods cannot eliminate them. Shellfish poisoning can cause anything along the spectrum from diarrhea and mild abdominal discomfort to death.
|Amnestic||Permanent short term memory loss, brain damage, death||domoic acid, caused by diatoms of the genus Pseudo-nitzschia|
|Diarrheal||Diarrhea, nausea, vomiting||okadaic acid, azaspiracid|
|Neurotoxic||Slurred speech, nausea, vomiting||Brevetoxins, from “red tide” algal blooms of the dinoflagellate Karenia brevis|
|Paralytic||Parathesias, coordination loss, speech defects, nausea, vomiting, death||saxitoxin, neosaxiton and gonyautoxins I to IV, caused by algae such as dinoflagellates, diatoms, and cyanobacteria|
Is it Always Safe to Eat Clean Meat?
When God gave us the protective guidelines in Leviticus 11, He had in mind the animals' natural diets. Ruminants with split hooves eat grass and have stomachs with four compartments, and hence are among the clean animals that God said were safe to eat. But God's instructions are not idiot proof. Wanting to fatten their cattle more quickly, British farmers supplemented the cattle's herbivorous diet with animal protein, some of which came from ground up cows, thus making cannibals of their cattle.
The result was an outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, better known as “Mad Cow Disease.” The pathological agent behind Mad Cow is a misfolded protein crystal known as a “prion,” found in the brains, central nervous systems, and pituitary glands. Prions cannot be killed by cooking the beef at high temperature. Spongiform encephalopathy creates thousands of holes in the cerebral cortex, turning normal brain matter into a sponge-like material. It is invariably fatal. So far, 221 people have died from Mad Cow (the human variant of which is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or Kuru), and over 4 million cows had to be destroyed to eradicate the disease in Great Britain.
We have been warned that as the end approaches even the consumption of “clean” meat will become increasingly dangerous:
Flesh was never the best food; but its use is now doubly objectionable, since disease in animals is so rapidly increasing. . . . Often animals are taken to market and sold for food, when they are so diseased that their owners fear to keep them longer. And some of the processes of fattening them for market produce disease. Shut away from the light and pure air, breathing the atmosphere of filthy stables, perhaps fattening on decaying food, the entire body soon becomes contaminated with foul matter.— MH 313, 314 (1905) (emphasis added)
Incredibly, the government is still allowing producers to make cannibals out of cows. Most newborn dairy calves in the United States are separated from their mothers within 12 hours so that the mother's milk can be sold for human consumption. The calves are then fed “milk replacer,” which often contains spray-dried cattle blood as a cheap source of protein. This practice is likely what caused a case of Mad Cow Disease found in 2012 in a dairy cow in Hanford, California. Moreover, cattle remains are fed to chickens as chicken feed, then poultry litter—floor waste that includes chicken feces, spilled feed, feathers, chicken parts, and possibly "floor bedding" such as sawdust, peanut hulls, straw, etc.—is fed to cattle. Poultry litter is vastly cheaper than alfalfa and other plant-based feed, and producers feed millions of tons of the stuff to cattle every year. So cattle remains become chicken feed which becomes poultry litter which becomes cattle feed, a cow cannibalism circuit that could spread Mad Cow Disease.
Such foolish, greed-motivated actions are making even clean animals unsafe. When we alter nature's plan regarding an animal's diet, we will change the equation regarding what is safe to eat. I would note, however, that this might work in the other direction: If we farm-raise, say, catfish in a clean water environment, and feed them a vegetable-based diet, the farmed catfish will be safer and better-tasting—unless you actually like the taste of mud.
“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food, but God will do away with both of them.” (1 Cor. 6:12-13) All food is lawful for the Christian, but not all food is healthful. Some things, such as the flesh of unclean animals, are so unhealthful and, in fact, potentially destructive of life, that eating them is morally equivalent to smoking or taking harmful drugs.
In distinguishing between clean and unclean animals, God intended to protect the health and well being of His people, and He still wants to protect us. Just as unclean animals were not suitable for sacrifice (Gen. 8:20, Lev. 27:11), they are not suitable food for the Christian who would live as a living sacrifice to God (Rom. 12:1).
If you are stranded on a desert island or are in other circumstances where better food is not available, by all means eat whatever is necessary to sustain life. God does not want you to starve to death. Food is fuel for the body, a matter of health. But God is not glorified when we have plenty of better options, yet risk our health in order to indulge appetite by eating animals that were not created to be eaten, and do not make the best food.