EATING ANIMALS Book Review by Sara S.
Over the past decade there has been an onslaught of books about America’s corrupt food industry. From Eric Schlosser’s meticulously researched, “Fast Food Nation” to Michael Pollan’s powerful, “The Omnivores Dilemma,” it almost seems like it’s considered ‘cool’ to know about what is in your food. Jonathan Safran Foer can now be added to the perpetually growing list of food-obsessed authors with his non-fiction debut, “Eating Animals.” In “Eating Animals”, Jonathan Safran Foer explores the argument of eating animals from the point of view of an on and off vegetarian. After his wife becomes pregnant, Foer decides to find out what really goes into the food he eats and will soon be feeding his child.
One thing that definitely sets Foer apart from all of the other authors writing about the food industry is his sympathy and understanding of meat eaters. The fact that he himself has struggled all of his life with eating meat only strengthens his argument. Even though I have been a vegetarian for over a year, I can have a hard time reading some people’s arguments about animal welfare and factory farms. This isn’t because I don’t agree with them, but because the majority of animal rights activists can come off as holier-than-thou and shove their opinion down your throat. Foer manages to keep a somewhat level head as the book progresses, making it easy for anyone to read. Foer realizes that the argument against factory farming is so strong; you don’t have to force your opinion on curious readers.
I came into reading this book already knowing quite a lot about the food industry and what is going on in factory farms. Yet some of the things that Foer writes about and brings to the reader’s attention are entirely new and repulsing for me to read. One of the most shocking things I read in “Eating Animals” is the ‘cleansing process’ for chickens. After being slaughtered, machinery cuts open chicken’s limp bodies. The majority of the time, the machinery accidentally rips open their intestines. Which in turn spreads the chicken’s feces all over the corpse. After the incision, the chickens are placed in a large tub of water, also known as “fecal soup.” Please recall that not all birds where improperly cut open, so many of them are clean. However, by immersing them in a tank with other feces covered birds, the cleanly chickens become contaminated as well. The birds are kept in the fecal soup for large sums of time so that in effect they absorb water. This way, manufacturers can charge you more for the amount of chicken you’re purchasing.
Since the chickens absorb more water, they gain weight and manufacturers are able to put a higher price on the chicken and claim they are selling the consumer more meat than they are actually getting. So not only are you being falsely charged, you are also consuming chicken that has absorbed large amounts of feces. Now I know after reading this, most people like to have an ignorant mind set and think that fecal soup is the exception, not the rule. However, “99% of US poultry producers have stayed with water immersion systems.” So don’t assume that your chicken is okay, that it is part of the 1% that hasn’t been ‘cleansed’ in water immersion systems. This is the reality of the situation, and it’s anything but pretty.
Another situation I never really put much thought into is fish slaughter. Even when I became vegetarian I thought, “It’s just fish, who cares?” For some reason, people seem to be more lenient or forgetful when it comes to fish’s tolerance for pain. However, the method used to obtain fish for slaughter is downright cruel. Captains of fishing vessels use GPS systems to track schools of fish and observe from an electronically controlled room to decide the best moment to reel in the fish. However, one important thing you should know about aquaculture, is the effect it has on other types of fish. When a fishing vessels goes out to catch fish for slaughter, they’re usually only trying to obtain one type of fish. Whether it is tuna or shrimp, they don’t want any other sea creature. So when fish are reeled in, they are capturing and killing dozens of other species of fish. This is referred to as bycatch, or animal species that are accidentally caught.
Today, fishing involves large nets so they can capture large amounts of fish. However, there end up being more bycatch than what captains of fish vessels are actually trying to catch. For example, when attempting to capture shrimp, “80 to 90 percent of the sea animals it captures overboard, dead or dying, are bycatch.” These fish aren’t dying peacefully either, they are drowning (yes, it’s possible), bleeding to death, or they may be injured by the hook and suffer for days until they finally die. Foer brings to light one of the arguments of animal rights that you don’t hear or think about often. Why is it that fish are so indispensable for us? Millions of people brag about how they catch fish and show off photos and videos of fish that they have personally caught and killed. Why is it okay for this one animal, but unacceptable for others? Foer simply puts it; “no reader of this book would tolerate someone swinging a pickax at a dog’s face.”
Which brings me to one of my favorite arguments the books makes. Why don’t humans eat dogs? Dogs have become the most popular domesticated animal. Studies have shown that the majority of dog owners talk to their dogs and feel as though their dogs talk back. Americans have formed a loving bond with this animal. But in all truth, why is it considered taboo to eat them? It is legal in 44 states to eat dog. If you give the dog a good life and treat it well, what would be wrong for you to eat it as well? As long as the slaughter is humane and quick, there should be no social issue.
All of the arguments used against eating dogs go perfectly well with any other species. Some people argue that you shouldn’t eat animals with significant mental capacities. However, this statement would include cows, pigs, chickens and many sea animals. Isn’t it hypocritical to eat these listed animals, but claim that eating dogs is wrong? Three to four million dogs and cats are euthanized annually. So what’s stopping us from using those animals as food? It’s resourceful and good for the environment. Honestly, eating dogs is the same thing as eating cows to me. There are people who raise pigs in their homes and eventually slaughter them. Why is it that dogs can’t be treated the same? It’s unfair to favor certain animals for no specific reason, other than it isn’t morally right. If you’re going to claim that eating dogs isn’t ‘right’, then you better have a strong argument as to why eating every other species IS right.
Probably one of the smartest things Foer does throughout “Eating Animals” is his choice to interview family farmers and activists. At one point he has an exchange of letters between a vegetarian family farmer, a PETA activist, and a carnivore family farmer. These sections show you how similar the views between animal rights activists and family farmers are. The majority of the time, family farmers are going to agree that animals do feel pain and suffering. It’s actually surprising how much family farmers advocate for animal welfare. It is this love of animals and not wanting to see them suffer that leads family farmers to avoid factory farming at all costs.
We’re living in a society where 99% of our meat comes from factory farms. It’s hard for farmers to choose animal welfare over profit. Family farmers end up not being paid as much due to a smaller number of animals. This is why it is so hard to find family farmers in today’s society. And by family farmers, I don’t mean meat you see in the organic section or cage-free eggs (which really means nothing). These farmers are at Farmer’s Markets and work independently, and they’re disappearing faster than ever. Hearing the arguments and opinions directly from these farmers really gives you insight into how tough family farming has become and how much pressure there is to switch over. One of the farmers interviewed and profiled in the book was eventually forced out of business due to a nearby slaughterhouse. Foer’s book really brings to light the fact that animals aren’t the only ones suffering from our corrupt food industry. Thousands of farmers across the nation have been forced out of business and are now unemployed.
Foer also talks about the inner workings of slaughterhouses. Animals are being killed while conscious and tortured to no end. Pigs are picked up and bashed against the floor. Pigs that remain conscious end up being stabbed with electric probes in places I’d rather not mention. There are endless forms of abuse going on in slaughterhouses and factory farms. It seems like this is an issue that is so clearly wrong and inhumane that it should be fixed by now. However, the majority of people running the food industry also have positions in the government. This is the type of argument where no matter what your stand (vegetarian, meat eater, etc.) you have to admit that the methods being used are undeniably cruel and wrong.
It may feel like I’m giving away the entire book to you, but trust me; there is a plethora of information that I haven’t even reviewed. While I found this book highly fascinating and incredibly researched, I still have some issues with it. Perhaps the largest issue with this book is that no matter how hard he tries, Foer is a fiction writer. His prose isn’t as authoritative as a journalist, which in the end weakens his argument. Foer has a knack for answering his own rhetorical questions and including irrelevant discussions about Franz Kafka. At one point, Foer interrupts his argument to inform the reader, “There’s more on that in the next chapter!” I’ll get to your next chapter when I get to it. Please don’t interrupt me with pointless reminders. There are parts of the book where he uses his creative writing for good. When Foer illustratively talks about his Grandmother who stuffed him with food whenever he came to visit, you can’t help but be sucked in. It makes you wish he wrote a book about his experiences with food, as opposed to where food comes from.
Another thing that really bothered me in “Eating Animals”, is how Foer slowly but surely turns on the family farmers he interviewed. Foer wrote endless letters to meat producers (a letter to Tyson is included in the book), and none of them responded. The only people to let Foer into their farms were a few family farmers. These are people who opened up to Foer and shared their fears of being run out of business. These are people who let Foer into their homes and let him view their raising methods. These are people that are trying their absolute hardest to raise and slaughter their animals in a humane manner. Yet Foer somehow ends up attacking them and their farming methods.
I guess what bothers me the most is that Foer makes this grandiose argument that he doesn’t care if people eat meat, as long as the animals are killed sensibly. Yet towards the end of the book, after interviewing several family farmers, Foer starts attacking their methods. One of the farmers, Bill Niman, talks about his inner struggle when it comes time for slaughter. He talks about how it’s an experience that never gets easier and that he is perpetually troubled by it. Niman tells Foer very personal information, and instead of treating Niman with respect, Foer goes on a rampage against him. Foer accuses Niman of being shallow and cruel. He states that him going forward with slaughtering his animals is his surrender. The worst part of this is that Foer doesn’t bother to share his opinion with Niman. Instead he twists what Niman says and talks about him without Niman’s knowledge. If I were Niman I would feel betrayed upon reading this section of “Eating Animals.” Niman willingly shared something very personal, which in turn Foer twisted for the benefit of his argument. In the end, it makes Foer unlikable and actually weakens his argument. These are people that welcomed Foer into their homes, let him see their farms (the only people who would), and shared very personal struggles they have with their job. By completely exploiting their experiences, Foer proves himself to be unlikable and no better than the very factory farmers who refused him.
Despite the issues I had with this book, I recommend that everyone read “Eating Animals.” Whether or not it was good, I just spent four pages writing about the pros and cons of this book. “Eating Animals” is a book that will get you talking about what you believe in. Whether or not you agree with everything in this book, the argument is so strong that it will get even the biggest omnivore to think about its content. The absolute strength of this book is the strong reaction that it rouses out of its reader. I have read several reviews, and in each one, whether they like it or not, the reviewer has a strong reaction to the book.
I definitely feel that this is especially an important book for teens. This is the phase where you really start to find your identity and form your morals. This is a book that will get you to question your own morals and beliefs. I have no doubt that even the biggest meat eater would second-guess their actions or at least think about them. Who knows, it may even strengthen your belief that eating animals is a good thing. Regardless of your stance, “Eating Animals” is an important book that everyone should read.