Like Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of Eating Animals, I have alternated all my life between being an ambiguous omnivore and an uncomfortable vegetarian. Ambiguous because I have never felt right about eating meat and uncomfortable because if there is anything I hate it is draw attention and cause inconvenience at social gatherings. But after listening to the audio book version of Eating Animals I can no longer be ambiguous. Had I not already been a vegetarian (since October 2010 this time), I would have become one by Chapter 2.
Foer has done a superb job presenting the difficult and complex topic of the ethics and public health dangers of meat production in the United States in a way that is mostly pleasant to read. When it is not pleasant to read it is because there is simply no way to present the subject matter honestly in a pleasant way. I tried to listen to every word, but I’ll admit, when it got to the part about the steps in butchering a pig, I had to fast forward just a little bit because I felt myself about to get sick. Foer integrates the facts with his own inner struggles and places his investigation within the context of his own family history. The birth of his son serves as the catalyst for his research on food production and he begins and ends the book with his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who survived World War II as a young girl by hiding in the Russian forests and scavenging for food. His grandmother’s story of near starvation and resulting obsession with food makes for an interesting backdrop to the excesses of how food is produced and eaten today.
Foer keeps his tone light and non-judgmental for the most part, letting the facts speak for themselves. The facts reveal a system that is driven by consumer demand to produce cheap and abundant meat at the cost of suffering on a massive scale in conditions that can only be described as Hell of earth and resulting in drug-resistant microbes that have already escaped the barbed-wire hidden meat factory and seeped into the general public. While humans have eaten meat throughout the whole of human history, in the past century the methods of producing meat and the content of the meat itself have changed drastically.
The facts about factory farming have been available to for a long time, but the book presents the information in a way that speaks to the ambiguous among us and delves deeper into the subject than anything I have read before. Eating Animals is the result of three years of intense research on the meat industry including in-depth discussions with representatives of all points of view about the issue. Foer lets several of these representatives speak for themselves: an animal rights activist, a factory farmer, a traditional pig farmer, a traditional poultry farmer, a couple who runs an ethical cattle ranch, a hardline vegetarian, and several factory farm workers. I had the sense that Foer was making an honest attempt to present the issue fairly from all points of view. Most of the industry representatives and opposing activists were identified by name, but the factory farmer asked that Foer not use his name. This man pointed out the factory farm system does what is necessary to “feed the world.” Consumers demand huge quantities of meat and want to be cheap.
Foer devotes at least a chapter to the methods for producing pork, poultry, beef, and fish and seafood. Although the exact methods and drugs and issues differ for each animal, the reader will see some similarities across all sectors: intense suffering, overcrowding, filth, animal disease caused by genetic mutation, rampant uncontrolled use of antibiotics, industry secrecy, and poorly paid non-English speaking workers. It seems laws against the inhumane treatment of animals are waived when it comes to factory-farmed animals. Beyond the abuses the system itself necessitates, there are abundant well-documented cases of gratuitous sadistic abuses by frustrated desensitized workers.
The insanely excessive use of antibiotics has been shown to result in drug-resistant microbes that have already spread into the human populations and resulted in many deaths. Experts believe it is only a matter of time before the next deadly pandemic hits. Autopsies of frozen bodies of people who died in the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed at least 50 million people worldwide and infected a third on the world’s population, have revealed links to swine and avian viruses. According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it has been identified as H1N5 and is a direct ancestor of the current H1N1 virus, which is linked to factory-farmed chicken.
If it were the facts alone that played into our food choices, the choice would be synch. But Foer acknowledges that all the horror in the world seems to fade into a sort of background uneasiness when confronted by your smiling family and the Thanksgiving turkey. Eating is a social activity with deep roots in memory, culture, and tradition. When you make a food choice such a vegetarianism that departs from tradition, culture, and deeply held beliefs about the necessity of meat for one’s health, you cause disruption. Your friends and relatives may perceive you as an over sensitive judgmental troublemaker. You may inconvenience the host. This is largely why I quit being a vegetarian even though when I was alone, I thought it was the right choice and felt great about it. But when confronted with the social table, it just did not seem worth the cost of alienating people.
I like that Foer acknowledges the difficulty presented by social culture and tradition. How can something as good as sharing a traditional meal with loved ones be connected with something as evil as factory farming? He also acknowledges the other powerful argument for eating meat: it tastes good. He says he loves the taste and texture of meat. But in the end, after the most thoughtful weighing of the options and the facts I have ever read, Foer and his wife choose to adhere to a vegetarian diet and to raise their child with new traditions. I recommend the book highly be be warned: it could be a life changer. My bottom line after reading this book is that I will never ever again purchase or eat meat that comes from a factory farm.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Emerging Infectious Diseases. Taubenberger, Jeffery K. and Morens, David M. “1918 Influenza: The Mother of All Pandemics.” Accessed 1 May 2011. <http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/eid/vol12no01/05-0979.htm>
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, Narrated by Jonathan Todd Ross. Recorded Books, LLC, 2009.
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