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.
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.