It is being called the “meatball war.”
To be precise, pork meatballs and other pork dishes such as roasts have become the latest weapons in the culture wars playing out in Europe over immigration after a Danish town voted in January 2016 to require public day care centers and kindergartens to include the meat on their lunch menus.
Denmark, known as a generous welfare state and for its freewheeling, marijuana-friendly Christiania neighborhood of Copenhagen, has been cracking down on immigration in recent months, as countries across the Continent grapple with an influx that is pushing many to re-evaluate their approach to asylum seekers.
Supporters of the proposal, which was passed late Monday by the council of Randers, a former industrial town of about 60,000 in central Denmark, said that serving traditional Danish food such as pork was essential to help preserve national identity.
Critics of the requirement, including members of the Muslim population and migration advocates, said it effectively created a problem that did not exist for the purpose of stigmatizing Muslims. There has never been an attempt to ban pork from any public lunch menu in Randers, they said, describing the latest initiative as a polarizing and barely veiled attempt to target Muslims.
“Danish food culture” must be a “central part of the offering — including serving pork on an equal footing with other foods,” the proposal says, adding that its intention was not to force anyone to eat something that “goes against one’s belief or religion.” Pork is forbidden under religious dietary laws for both Muslims and Jews.
But a spokesman for the Danish People’s Party, a far-right anti-immigrant party that backed the measure, framed the move on his Facebook page as necessary to uphold Danish culture in the face of potential threats from Islam.
“It is unacceptable to ban Danish food culture, including dishes with pork, in Danish child care institutions. What will be next?!” he wrote. “The Danish People’s Party is working nationally and locally for Danish culture, including Danish food culture, and that means we are also fighting against Islamic rules and misguided considerations dictating what Danish children should eat.”
The rule on pork comes as Denmark is poised to pass a law that would force refugees to hand over their valuables, including jewelry, to help pay for lodging them, a move that has angered human rights groups and drawn criticism from the United Nations.
PM Lars Lokke Rasmussen has also warned that the 1951 United Nations treaty governing the rights of refugees might need to be revised. And this month, after Sweden introduced identity checksfor travelers arriving from Denmark, the Danes did the same along their border with Germany.
In Denmark, a small Scandinavian country where farming has long been part of the national identity and pork is a popular staple, some commentators said it was not surprising that the ubiquitous pig had become a point of contention. In 2014, crispy pork with parsley sauce was named Denmark’s national dish. The country is also among the world’s largest pig meat exporters, according to the Danish Agriculture and Food Council.
An archaeologist and radio host who was born in Denmark to Turkish parents, noted, with more than a hint of wryness, that she could understand those agitating on behalf of pigs.
“In a country with more pigs than humans,” she wrote on her Facebook page, “it makes perfect sense to have a political party talking on behalf of the pigs.”
Charlotte Molbaek, a member of the Socialist People’s Party on the Randers Town Council, said the proposal was politically motivated. The Danish People’s Party has become a potent political force, in part by railing against immigration and fashioning itself as the protector of traditional Danish values.
“What do children need? Do they need pork? Actually not. But the Danish People’s Party does,” she was quoted as saying by Politiken, a daily newspaper, during a debate on the measure. “Children need grown-ups.”
Denmark is not alone in viewing culture, including food, as a bulwark to protect national identity. In food-obsessed France, where calls to uphold the country’s vaunted secular liberal values have become all the more urgent after two separate terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists, pork has become a sometimes emotive issue in debates over integration.
Several towns run by rightist mayors have tried to remove nonpork options from school cafeterias in a professed effort to preserve French identity, even as members of the Muslim and Jewish populations have protested that such policies risk alienating minorities. In Chalon-sur-Saône, in the French region of Burgundy, elementary school students who do not eat pork have to content themselves with vegetables after the City Council voted in September to stop offering substitutions like fish on their menus on days when pork is served.
Schools in Europe have increasingly come under scrutiny for their essential role in fostering integration, and, on Wednesday, it emerged in Britain that a 10-year-old Muslim boy had been questioned by the police in December after his spelling skills failed him and he mistakenly wrote that he lives in a “terrorist house” during an English lesson.
The boy, from Lancashire, in northwest England, had meant to write “terraced house,” the BBC reported.
But in Denmark, it is food at schools that has spurred the latest debate. Fatma Cetinkaya, a member of the Social Democrats on the Randers Town Council, called the new measure “incomprehensible.”
“Randers has always been at the forefront when it comes to integration,” she was quoted as saying by Politiken. “We don’t have problems with crime and a lot of other things, so it’s incomprehensible that pork has been made into a problem. It’s such a shame.”
But she was philosophical. “As a Muslim, you get thick-skinned,” she said.