As Israel Ignores Swine Flu Reality, Global Risk

As the realities of the spread of influenza from hog to human have come to light, and questions are raised about the integrity of agricultural practices at Smithfield Foods in Mexico and other factory farms throughout the world, the ultra-Orthodox Israeli Deputy Health Minister seems to be foolishly fixated on the fact that Jews should not eat pork.

After two potential cases of swine flu were discovered in Israel, and two Israelis who had just returned from Mexico with flu-like symptoms were quarantined, the Deputy Health Minister, Yakov Litzman, took the next logical step: he renamed the virus. "We will call it Mexican flu. We won't call it swine flu," Litzman declared. He chose to identify the virus with its alleged country of origin instead of pigs because pigs are not religiously permissible to eat, reports the Associated Press.

The fact that swine flu is a respiratory virus and that the consumption of pork is not linked to transmission of the flu is beside the point for the Health Ministry. Pork is a negative Jewish symbol, and no matter the form it takes, whether juicy pork chop or deadly virus, certain ultra-Orthodox leaders don't even want to hear of it in their country.

Litzman's renaming of the new flu virus would just seem out of place and random if it had been in any other country, but in Israel--where pigs are raised on Arab lands and pork shops are firebombed out of certain neighborhoods--pork is highly politicized. Even the word for "pork" in Hebrew, chazir, is so reviled that it goes by many euphemisms: "white meat," "other meat," and "white steak."

Apparently the name for the potentially devastating pandemic that stems from what seems to be a "a nasty mash-up of swine, avian, and human viruses," according to Tom Philpott of Grist, is too offensive to certain religious Israeli ears.

The Health Ministry's re-branding effort is the latest in a religious assault on pork consumption in the Holy Land. The raising and selling of pork was largely outlawed in 1962, though committed secularists and pork-eaters exploited the legal loopholes to indulge in the 'forbidden' flesh. An underground pork economy developed, and as the rift between secular and religious widened in Israeli society over the years, pork consumption slowly grew. Religious leaders in the Knesset in the past thirty years have put forth various bills to outright ban the pork trade, to no avail.

The influx of about one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union during the 1990s boosted the market for pig meat. The pork trade has since boomed. It is still mostly illegal to raise pigs in Israel except in certain Christian Arab zones, though over thirty industrial farms are in operation and new pork restaurants and treyf-selling stores have continued to sprout. The new Israeli pork culture has frustrated many ultra-Orthodox Israelis who ignore the existence of the industrial pig operations and instead choose to contest the shops that sell the white meat, and those who eat of it.

As a result of the government's failure to officially recognize the legitimacy of many of the country's pig farms, industrial hog farming goes highly unregulated. According to a source at one factory farm in the Israel's Negev, the desert swine operation takes its cues from European regulators, complying with stringent regulations out of their farm's particular commitment to quality. Most producers aren't nearly as responsible.

Completely unrelated to eating pork though the flu might be, a swine pandemic by any other name is still porcine in origin. By refusing to recognize the source of the problem and regulate irresponsible farm practices in Israel, future swine viruses could emerge from Israel, and could wind up bearing an Israeli moniker--a much more humiliating prospect.