This summer, I finally read Jonathan Safran Foer’s popular new book Eating Animals, which had been on the top of my “to-read” list for a while. I finished it in less than a week, and it blew me away. I wanted to share it with others. So I challenged my Dad – an avid reader and a writer by trade – to a father-daughter book club challenge. I’d pick the first book, he’d pick the next, and so forth. The only thing more moving to me than this book was my Dad’s response. Read it here, then read my take on the book below. Then read this book. Then share it with someone you love.
The cover of my book was quite striking, bright green with white lettering. Every time somebody asked me what it was about, my answer was always insecure and vague. And I’d sort of sheepishly smile to let the person know, Don’t Worry! I’m not some crazy militant vegan! Please still be my friend! I won’t throw paint on you!
But then I felt like a phony. Because what I really wanted to say was, This is a book that everyone needs to read. But how do you say that without sounding like you’re trying to convert people? Let’s try, shall we?
When Jonathan Safran Foer, an off-and-on vegetarian, found out that he would be a father for the first time, he gained a desire to understand why we eat meat, where our meat comes from, and how to explain to his son why it is okay (or not okay) to eat some animals and not others. Eating Animals explores the ethical and logical arguments surrounding the idea of eating animals, then delves deeper into the production of meat (and eggs – he somewhat ignores dairy) in the United States, both from factory farms and family-owned farms. The book is meticulously researched, engaging, and eye-opening.
Before addressing the issues of factory farming, Foer addresses the “why” behind the idea of eating animals. Through experiences with pets and, perhaps, an innate feeling of connectedness, we have positive feelings towards animals. We cringe at the idea of eating the family dog, or abusing another domesticated animal, so why do we condone the killing and torture of other animals? It’s a common argument for vegetarianism. My favorite idea here, however, is Kafka’s reference to animals as “receptacles of forgetting”. Eating animals requires a certain level of forgetting – forgetting how similar they are to us, and in today’s society, forgetting the means by which they arrive on our plates. Sadly, this makes it easier for factory farming to exist. If we don’t know how food gets on our plates, we can’t let it affect us. Ignorance, in this case, is bliss.
And then there’s factory farming. The first chapters on factory farming appalled and shocked me. What’s sadder is that, by the end of the book, I wasn’t shocked anymore; I had heard everything. Factory farming treats nature as an obstacle. Their business model entails calculating how sick they can keep their animals without killing them (yet). Secrecy is of the utmost importance. Chickens cannot live past adolescence because their genetics are so messed up. “Not a single turkey you can buy in a supermarket could walk normally, much less jump or fly” (111). I could go on. The bottom line is, factory farming is disgusting. Animals are confined, neglected, and treated as inventory rather than sentient beings.
Another topic that Foer addresses that I had never before considered is the cruelty inherent in the fishing industry. Because of the methods used to catch fish, 4.5 million sea animals are killed annually in addition to those fish we actually consume. And the slaughter of fish is never humane: “Although one can realistically expect that [mammals] are slaughtered with speed and care, no fish gets a good death” (193). We often think of eating fish as less cruel than eating cattle or pigs. They seem less important. But Foer discredits this claim, and does so convincingly.
Before reading this book, I knew that factory farming was cruel. But I was unaware of the serious effects that it had on public health and the environment. I’ll simply include excerpts here.
Public Health issues (p. 134):
- Because of the unavoidable level of cross-contamination in the processing of chickens, the USDA had to reclassify feces. It is now considered a “cosmetic blemish” for inspection purposes so that the majority of chicken will pass inspection.
- “Every week…millions of chickens leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria, or marred by lung and hear infections, cancerous tumors, or skin conditions are shipped for sale to consumers.
- Next the chickens go to a massive refrigerated tank of water, where thousands of birds are communally cooled…the water in these tanks has been aptly named ‘fecal soup.’” This practice is “practically ensuring cross-contamination.”
…This is not just the dog-food-grade meat we hear about at Taco Bell. This is the chicken you eat everywhere: fast food joints, fancy restaurants, and your neighbor’s dinner table. I don’t ascribe to the claim that this is the only cause of Western diseases, but it certainly isn’t making us healthier. The food we feed our children has been soaked in shit. Think about that.
Environmental Issues (pp 175 – 177):
- Farm animals in the US produce “roughly 87,000 pounds of shit per second”, with almost no waste-treatment infrastructure for farmed animals.
- “And not all of the shit is shit, exactly – it’s whatever will fit through the slatted floors of the factory farm buildings. This includes… stillborn piglets, afterbirths, dead piglets, blood, urine, antibiotic syringes, broken bottles of insecticide, hair, pus, even body parts”.
- “If all goes according to plan, the liquefied waste is pumped into massive ‘lagoons’ adjacent to the hog sheds…if you were to fall into one, you would die”
Factory-produced meat is making us sick and hurting our environment. Factory farms are cruel. This is not a radical viewpoint. As described by an animals rights activist, “factory farming is a middle-of-the-road issue – something most reasonable people would agree on if they had access to the truth” (90). Like I said – it’s hard for me to talk about this book without sounding like I’m trying to convert the world. But it’s hard not to want everybody to know these things.
So what differentiates these issues from all the other atrocities going on in our world – famine, murder, war, abuse, injustice, bigotry? The difference that I see is that this is something we can have an effect on every time we eat. This is a problem we can begin to solve with small daily choices. Yes, our ancestors ate animals. But that doesn’t mean that we have to.
Finally, Foer discusses the role of food – including meat – in our culture, and acknowledges these roles as meaningful. Food is not just something we put into our bodies – we share it with our family; it creates memories; it brings us together. But is that enough of a reason to continue eating meat, given the arguments presented in this book? Will Thanksgiving still be meaningful without a Turkey? Foer sums up the issue well, in a quote I’ve included below. For me, especially after reading this book, eating a vegetarian diet is a no-brainer. For others, hopefully it will at least force some introspection. We don’t have to see vegetarianism as an all-or-nothing thing; decreasing meat consumption still means less cruelty, less pollution, less sickness. But regardless of what you think about eating animals, it should at least be discussed. Bravo to Foer for intelligently inviting us to the conversation.
“Is [animal] suffering the most important thing in the world? Obviously not. But that’s not the question. Is it more important than sushi, bacon, or chicken nuggets? That’s the question.”