By Jane Birch (Last updated December 8, 2014)
One popular explanation of D&C 89:13 (which dates from at least the early 1940s) is the idea that since the early Saints did not have the convenience of modern-day refrigeration, the Lord counseled them to consume meat only in times of winter or cold, when the meat would not spoil as quickly. The implication is that since “modern refrigeration now makes it easy for us to eat meat safely in any season” this counsel is no longer relevant to us.
Of course, none of the early Saints interpreted this verse this way. You would think that if this interpretation made sense, people who actually had experience keeping, killing, and eating animals might see the wisdom in this line of thinking. After all, they knew the difference between hot and cold and had experience in handling fresh meat and observing it spoil in the heat. But that is not the case. None of the early Saints recognized the supposed wisdom in the Lord’s counsel to not eat meat spring, summer or fall because it might be dangerous to do so, given the temperature. Instead, 19th century Saints assumed the Lord’s reasoning had to do with meat being more appropriate to consume during the cold season.
Then (as now) there were people who got sick from eating spoiled foods of many kinds. But do we have lots of cases of early Mormons becoming seriously ill from eating meat in the summer specifically due to a lack of refrigeration? Does it make sense to assume that they lacked the basic understanding of how to eat meat safely in times other than winter or cold?
Sound Evidence for this Theory is Lacking
It is true that many food-borne illnesses derive from meat, and temperature is a critical and well-recognized factor that can lead to spoiling. The early Saints would no doubt have appreciated the convenience of mechanical refrigeration, but the hypothesis that God would instruct humans to eat meat only in times of winter or cold to reduce the chances of them consuming it spoiled faces several challenges.
The likelihood of eating spoiled meat has to do with how meat is handled and not when it is consumed. Warm weather complicates the handling of meat, but eating either properly prepared fresh meat or properly preserved meat is no more dangerous or unhealthy in one season than another. Likewise, both fresh and preserved meats are dangerous in any season if they are not properly prepared. Spoilage is a year-round problem, even in modern times, and there are a variety of factors (in addition to heat) that determine whether meat will spoil: animal feed and hygiene, slaughtering techniques, cross-contamination, food handling and preparation, and other factors.  Keeping raw meat cold, while clearly an important factor in preventing or postponing most types of spoilage, does not prevent all types of spoilage. And while there are additional risks when the weather is warm, this is true with milk, eggs, and plant-based foods as well.
Before mechanical refrigeration, there were fewer ways to keep the flesh of animals cold enough to thwart decay. If there were no means to reduce the temperature of the meat to a safe level, slaughtered animals had to be either consumed or preserved within a necessarily short time frame, but this was by no means an insurmountable obstacle, given that the timing of the slaughter was also controlled by humans.
Whether or not spoilage can be detected without instruments, spoiled meat can quickly make a person very sick and can even lead to death, a clear incentive for avoiding it. Fortunately, spoiled meat often looks, smells, and tastes bad. Meat was too prized to allow it to spoil on a frequent basis, and techniques for preserving it were established hundreds, even thousands of years before the 1830s. In fact, “refrigeration has been around since antiquity.” Other well-established preservation techniques included adding sugar, salting, drying, dehydrating, smoking, pickling, fermenting, and brining.
If helping the Saints avoid meat spoiled by excess heat was the Lord’s reasoning for verse 13, this revelation was particularly ineffectual. There is no evidence that the early Saints dramatically changed their behavior in light of this counsel; nor is there evidence for widespread illness or death that could have been prevented had they done so. Indeed, the early Saints were no doubt at least as well aware as their fellow Americans of the need to handle meat carefully and as well versed in the various techniques to preserve animal flesh when it could not be consumed immediately.
Other Scriptures Do Not Support the Refrigeration Theory
D&C 89:13 is not the only scripture where God suggests limitations on the consumption of meat. Does it make any sense to think that the Lord meant for the following statements to be true . . . “except when the meat is kept in a refrigerator”? Try adding this exception to any of these verses:
And surely, blood shall not be shed, only for meat, to save your lives; and the blood of every beast will I require at your hands. (JST Genesis 9:11)
And wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need. (D&C 49:21)
And [animals] hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger. (D&C 89:15)
I don’t believe it really makes sense to claim that these scriptures have been invalidated due to the invention of mechanical refrigeration.
While it remains true that warm weather complicates the handling of meat, it appears to be too great a stretch to suggest that D&C 89:13 was specifically designed to address this issue. In fact, it is only since the invention of mechanical refrigeration that this particular explanation for verse 13 became popular, too late to have done the early Saints any good. The Word of Wisdom says nothing about properly preserving meat, refrigeration, or the conditional nature of this counsel.
For more analysis of various interpretations of D&C 89:13, see: A. Jane Birch, “Getting into the Meat of the Word of Wisdom,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 11 (2014): 1-36.
See also: Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective by Jane Birch
Notes Melanie Douglass, R.D., Losing It: Life Is Better When You Feel Good (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 8.  Gordon M. Wardlaw and Anne M. Smith, Contemporary Nutrition, 6th ed. updated (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2007), 529–40.  R. A. Lawrie, Lawrie’s Meat Science, 6th ed. (Cambridge: Woodhead, 1998), 119–25.  Lawrie, Lawrie’s Meat Science, 143–211.  Wardlaw and Smith, Contemporary Nutrition, 538.  James E. McWilliams, A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (New York: Columbia), 79–81.  Barabara Krasner-Khait, “The Impact of Refrigeration.” History Magazine (July 5, 2005).  Lawrie, Lawrie’s Meat Science, 143–211.