“Was lack of refrigeration the reason God advised meat for winter only?” (D&C 89:13).

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.[1]

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.[2] 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. [3] Keeping raw meat cold, while clearly an important factor in preventing or postponing most types of spoilage, does not prevent all types of spoilage.[4] And while there are additional risks when the weather is warm, this is true with milk, eggs, and plant-based foods as well.[5]

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.[6]

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.”[7] Other well-established preservation techniques included adding sugar, salting, drying, dehydrating, smoking, pickling, fermenting, and brining.[8]

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

[1] Melanie Douglass, R.D., Losing It: Life Is Better When You Feel Good (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 8.

[2] Gordon M. Wardlaw and Anne M. Smith, Contemporary Nutrition, 6th ed. updated (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2007), 529–40.

[3] R. A. Lawrie, Lawrie’s Meat Science, 6th ed. (Cambridge: Woodhead, 1998), 119–25.

[4] Lawrie, Lawrie’s Meat Science, 143–211.

[5] Wardlaw and Smith, Contemporary Nutrition, 538.

[6] James E. McWilliams, A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (New York: Columbia), 79–81.

[7] Barabara Krasner-Khait, “The Impact of Refrigeration.” History Magazine (July 5, 2005).

[8] Lawrie, Lawrie’s Meat Science, 143–211.

Comments

  1. May I suggest a reference for you as well? Doctrine & Covenants student manual as published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which clearly states, “Meat has more calories than fruits and vegetables, which some individuals need fewer of in summer than winter. Also, before fruits and vegetables could be preserved, people often did not have enough other food to eat in winter. Modern methods of refrigeration now make it possible to preserve meat in any season. The key word with respect to the use of meat is ‘sparingly’. ”

    Are you suggesting that people should trust an interpretation of scripture that comes ‘according to Jane’ over that of the actual religion which dictates that scripture? Or over an apostle of the Lord (whom you yourself quote)? Let’s not forget this quote from Widtsoe (since it seems people like to pick and choose which things he was inspired in and of which he presumptively was not) : “The Word of Wisdom is not a system
    of vegetarianism. Clearly meat is permitted. Naturally, that includes animal products …. These products cannot be excluded simply because they are not mentioned specifically. By that token most of our foodstuffs could not be eaten.”

    • Mayme: Thank you for your comment. I’m delighted to hear your ideas and happy for a chance to respond!

      It is important to remember that the D&C manual and other CES manuals are not written by Church leaders and are not meant to be taken as doctrine. They are written by good men and women who are scholars of the gospel, but these same scholars would be the first to admit they are not perfect, and they contain errors or interpretations that will need to change as more understanding comes to light. I work at Brigham Young University and personally know many of the great faculty members in Religious Education, the same who write these types of manuals, so I am well acquainted with the process and know from experience that they welcome good scholarship from many sources and do not consider what they have written as totally accurate, much less doctrine.

      Please note that the passage you quoted is given in the manual will no evidence to back it up. If you’d like to read an analysis of the pros and cons of the theories suggested in that quote, I invite you to read a piece I wrote for the Mormon Interpreter journal, “Getting into the Meat of the Word of Wisdom.”

      Please also note that anything I write is an expression of my opinion. It is not put forth as doctrine for the Church. I’m not the prophet, and I do not pretend to speak for the Church. I’m just an average Church member sharing my opinions in the hope that they may help some people. I expect people to do their own study and prayer and seek their own answers from the Lord.

      I love Elder Widtsoe and have written extensively on his work on the Word of Wisdom. You can read it here, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom Pioneers: Elder John A. Widtsoe and Leah Widtsoe” and also here, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom Pioneers: The Widtsoes on Meat.” I agree with Elder Widtsoe that the Word of Wisdom is not a system of vegetarianism. The Lord ordained meat for our use! But He also tells us that He it is pleasing to Him that it “should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine” (D&C 89:13). We are not commanded to give up meat, but it can be a blessing to forego it during times of plenty. We get to choose.

      If you study the actual words of our prophets through our history, all of them that have spoken on the Word of Wisdom have accepted D&C 89:13 at face value. We also know some have tried to limit their meat consumption. You can read some of their statements here, along with a description of how some have tried to limit their meat consumption, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: LDS Leaders on the Word of Wisdom.”.

      Thanks again for this opportunity to share, Mayme. I welcome your comments. We don’t have to agree on everything to share ideas with each other. I wish you well.

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