Review: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Book cover of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran FoerMost people are familiar with Jonathan Safran Foer’s novels, such as Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which has recently been turned into a film starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. Eating Animals couldn’t be further from those books, however. Instead of using whimsical prose and crazy characters, he uses cold hard facts and figures to tell the truth about factory farming and slaughter in a triumph of investigative journalism.  

Summary: Jonathan Safran Foer spent much of his teenage and college years oscillating between carnivore and vegetarian. As he became a husband and a father, he kept returning to two questions: Why do we eat animals? And would we eat them if we knew how they got on our dinner plates?

Brilliantly synthesizing philosophy, literature, science, and his own undercover detective work, Eating Animals explores the many fictions we use to justify our eating habits-from folklore to pop culture to family traditions and national myth-and how such tales justify a brutal ignorance. 
So the big selling point for Eating Animals  seems to be that it’s not an attempt to convert you to vegetarianism. Instead, it’s supposed to be a more unbiased look at factory farming and the meat industry, and how what you choose to eat impacts society and the environment. I was initially quite sceptical about this claim, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s vegetarian views shine through quite clearly to me. That said, it’s a thoroughly enlightening glance at the world of slaughter and certain aspects simply cannot be distorted by the opinion of the author.

My one and only experience with vegetarianism involved my four year old self innocently proclaiming that I wanted to be a vegetarian. My parents lovingly yet firmly denied this request, mentioning something about protein and canine teeth. Perhaps I wasn’t particularly vehement about this life-style choice because I just mentally shrugged and finished my chicken; presumably I’d just seen a piglet I liked that day or something. The point is that for me, vegetarianism was always something that happened to other people.

Although I don’t actually eat meat often, I can’t say I’ve ever seen it as wrong. The opposite in fact – I believe humans are meant to eat meat, just as thousands of animals eat thousands of other animals in the wild. Fortunately, that’s kind of the point of this book. In Eating Animals, Safran Foer doesn’t even state that he thinks meat-eating is wrong – it’s the method in which that meat is obtained that’s at issue. 

According to this book, more than 99% of the meat you see on the shelves anywhere, be it supermarket or butcher, came from a factory farm. We’re talking huge, dark buildings storing thousands of animals. They can’t move out of their own faeces, eat food that’s good for them or get treatment for the painful sores that cover them. They’ve been genetically engineered to be unable to breed and have weak, stunted bones than can barely support their own weight.

A lot of Eating Animals isn’t about vegetarianism just for the animal’s sake, although obviously that plays a part. Instead it mentions how the farmed animals are pumped with so many antibiotics to prevent all the illness caused by the squalor they live in, so you end up consuming the same antibiotics via their meat. That’s why humans are slowly becoming less susceptible to drugs – you’re ingesting them without knowing.

Additionally, I learnt how chicken corpses are left to dangle in vats of hot water, filled with the blood, faeces and pus that dropped off all the other chickens before them. The water opens the pores, and in goes all that lovely mixture. So the meat is inflated to seem bigger by the water retention, but… just think about what you’re eating. 

It’s a graphic book, filled with Safran Foer’s own experiences and also witness accounts of workers from factory farms. That said, I’m squeamish but it didn’t really disturb me until he talked about cattle being skinned while it was still alive. I thought about posting a quote to demonstrate, but then… no. Perhaps not. So this book won’t keep you up at night, just give you something to think about perhaps. I do admit to skipping the few pages about fish farming, but there are enough fish eating each other in my nightmares without having to suffer through reading it for enjoyment, thank you very much.

‘We just swing them (piglets), thump them, then toss them aside. Then, after you’ve thumped ten, twelve, fourteen of them, you take them to the chute room and stack them for the dead truck. And if you go in the chute room and some are still alive, then you have to thump them all over again. There’ve been times I’ve walked in that room and they’d be running around with an eye-ball hanging down the side of their face, just bleeding like crazy, or their jaw would be broken.’

It can be quite heavy on the facts and figures, which makes it a little bit of a chore sometimes. Especially in the chapter about the transmission of viruses (like Swine flu), I had to force myself not to skim-read. I suppose it shows the research that has gone into this book and it does add to the seriousness. I couldn’t help but feel it could have ended a few chapters earlier too though. Each chapter (and they’re not short) towards the end seemed to round off the whole thing perfectly, but no – it carried on. After a while it got a little repetitive.

It’s also a little preachy in places, talking about shame and guilt a lot, but then again, surely it’s a worthwhile topic to preach about? I just wish he wouldn’t condemn the people who are trying to help – like the family farms and vegetarians who don’t push it on all their friends.

Another thing that’s worth noting is that Jonathan Safran Foer is from the US, and the statistics and stories mentioned are all American. I mean, I doubt it would be any different over here in the UK, but it doesn’t specifically mention. 
 
I’ve been thinking about where I stand on this. Obviously the idea of factory farms are abhorrent, and as Safran Foer says, if consumers continue to fund their unethical treatment, of course it will continue. On the other hand, genuine family farms are few and far between, and access to humanly obtained meat is difficult. 

Eating Animals is worth a read, but it’s not an easy book. Although it’s written in a very easy, accessible tone, the abundant figures can occasionally make it slow going. Just be prepared – you think you know where your food comes from, but you really, really don’t.

Visit the Eating Animals website here, or read my review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Comments

  1. Karen says:

    I've read a few books like this and it has changed how I eat. I'm not vegetarian but I rarely eat meat and try to buy from local grassed, free range farms when I do.
    I don't really think it works to get preachy. It usually turns people off to whatever you're trying to say. On any topic.

    1. Hanna says:

      Hi Karen, thanks for reading that super-length review!

      I'm the same as you, I think. I wouldn't class myself as a vegetarian but I happen to actually not like the taste of meat much, so I tend not to eat it often. Now though, I'll definitely be investigating more animal friendly farms.

      I felt like that about the preaching too. Even though I often agreed with him, part of me just wanted to rebel in a petty way because I hate being talked down to!

  2. Ellie Warren says:

    I probably wouldn't read this because it's from an American viewpoint. I know our farming isn't perfect but the horror stories I've heard from the US are awful. I've paid attention to a lot of the campaigns that Jamie Oliver and High Fernly-Whatsit have done and I'm on the high welfare bandwagon. Where I grew up pigs all had little tin huts in the fields and I thought that's how it was. Now I avoid non-UK pork and try to get outdoor reared wherever possible. I only eat happy chickens and eat more game meat and fish than I used to.

    1. Hanna says:

      I'm not sure what I believe about over here, and I don't want to look it up because then I'll have to look at photos and that… that's not good.

      I've definitely seen those kind of farms (nice ones, I mean) not far from where I live so it's possible that they're more frequent over here. I just can't see it being that much better…

  3. I find the antibiotics stuff scary and think that society really should do something about it. Have you seen the documentary Food Inc? It's very good and touches on a lot of similar stuff.

    1. Hanna says:

      I have to admit, it had never occurred to me before but it shocked me quite a lot. I haven't seen it but I have heard of it – I didn't watch it because I'm too squeamish when it comes to pictures *blushes*

  4. Laura says:

    Oooooh, I don't know which edition you've had, but in the foreword to the one I read, Foer wrote a special little intro to UK readers, which basically said that even though he said that he might have reconsidered his decision if he lived in a different time/place, the place he was thinking of wasn't the UK, because things are just as bad here (maybe not quite as bad. But still bad.) And I was like ohhhhh fuck, cause there goes my get out clause!

    As you know, I did love this book, but I was definitely on the 'eating animals is bad!' bandwagon before, so this only helped me! Although I do agree with it getting a tiiiny bit repetitive at some points. Also, I like your parents' teeth explanation of why you had to carry on eating meat! Very smart 🙂

    1. Hanna says:

      Yeah, it had that little foreword in my edition too. I don't know though – I'm torn between the cynical view of 'of COURSE it's going to be as bad over here' and a more hopeful, naive 'but the British are more traditional!' Lol. It just didn't seem like he'd actually looked into the UK at all and was just ASSUMING it's as bad.

      Don't get me wrong, I know that factory farming happens over here too. I'm just hoping that meat over here is actually as moral as it claims on the packet.

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