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Book Review: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

May 8, 2011

Every American should read Eating Animals. The book is a brave in-depth analysis of the factory farming industry in America. Unlike Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, who are criticized for stopping short of a logical eating ethic, Foer does not dance around the details. Using raw numbers, his own visits to a variety of types of farms, and interviews with a variety of members in the industry, Foer reveals the hidden. Meat does not come from farms with animals; it comes from factories processing a sort of sub-animal, too sickly and genetically mutated to be considered whole. Erase the nostalgic concept of the American farmer, where the relationship between animal and farmer is symbiotic. That is not where your food is coming from.

Throughout his book, it is clear that Foer battles his own traditions and habits. He repeatedly explains his problematic relationship with vegetarianism and his family’s attachment to meal rituals. He talks about our habits with food. We tack on tradition and memory to our relationship with food, which makes it harder to transition yourself away from meat. By the end of the book, he realizes our sticking with the present food consumption pattern is a lazy habit. By not wanting to change our habits and learn more, we hide the process in making our food. We mystify the production. For the sake of a fried treat reminiscent of childhood picnics, we let the chicken industry get away with hiding how they create the final product. To Foer, we are passive consumers participating in an industry without ethics. When Foer starts raising children, he realized he had no idea what he was feeding his baby. He investigated beyond the factory farming veil, and found very disturbing results. He sneaks onto a chicken farm, into a football field sized shed, and sees horrific and disgusting conditions, including sickly live chicks squeezed together living on top of dead chicks and feces. Here is a fact: the meat and dairy industries actively hide what they are producing. That alone is scary. Add the conditions that are the result of this, and you have unclean and inhumane practices.

When it comes to statistic details, Foer is every math teachers dream. Instead of just relaying stats and facts, Foer illustrates what these numbers mean. I became intrigued when Foer described the space allowed to a free-range chicken (the size of a piece of 8 x 10 paper) or when he explained how many people it would take to produce the pounds of animal waste that occur per factory farm. I knew that the waste pits were extremely harmful for the environment, as a friend of mine prosecutes chicken farms for this very reason. However, I didn’t really fully understand how disgusting and harmful these pits can be. They are deadly. It happens more often than you think but just this week, a farmer in Sussex England fell in a waste pit and died. Foer interweaves environmentalism and abuse issues, showing a system that is too horrific to imagine. In fact, I would rather let Foer explain the details, as he does it in a concise and convincing manner. I joked with AAM that this review won’t be able to illustrate how good the book is, and he said “Just scan it into the computer.”

Foer does take Michael Pollan to task for saying that some farms are better than others (A great blog, written by a graduate student at Pollan’s UC Berkley, called “Say What Michael Pollan” does this as well, but in a much more detailed manner). He explains that this creates an inconsistent message and a hard one to manage at that. For example, it is much easier to tell your host that you are vegetarian then, “I only eat sustainable meat and dairy from this one random farm.”  It is easier to just give up and join the factory farmed consumers. Additionally, the more “humane” cattle and bird farms that Pollan recommends still funnel money to the factory farms through purchasing animals and supplies, slaughtering at the large slaughterhouses, and impacting the environment. For Foer, there is no way to escape the system, but to quit it.

Believe me, I know, reading about our factory farming systems is uncomfortable. Nobody wants to voluntarily read about how awful conditions have become. Reading is for pleasure, for enjoyment. However, I truly believe that food should be examined and questioned. We shouldn’t be complacent and eat something because we always have eaten it. Foer also questions the “I don’t want to hear it. I like my meat” approach to eating. You have every right to know about your food, and should make decisions once you know the entire truth. Foer tells a story about Lincoln saving a few small birds in distress. He was teased by others, but Lincoln replied “I could not have slept to-night if I had left those poor creatures on the ground and not restored them to their mother.” Foer explains that once Lincoln knew about the birds, they could not escape his mind. He wasn’t a vegetarian or anything sentimental, just a person who saw distress and wanted to solve it. For my readers who aren’t vegetarian, I do encourage you to read the book to at least be more educated about the system you are participating in. I know your instinct is to dismiss and not read Eating Animals, but question that dismissal. Why are we so dismissive of efforts to reveal the hidden? Once we know the truth about how meat is produced, we are better equipped to demand better food.

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