Jan 11 2010

Book Review: Reflections on ‘Eating Animals’

For the past 7 months or so, I have been completely immersed in all things ‘food related’.  Whether I’m at a farmers’ market, trying out a new recipe, learning about school food or USDA policy, or taking pictures, I seem to spend much of my time on a constant quest for more information about our country’s food systems and traditions.  It seems that when I open one door and learn something entirely new, I end up with five new questions (and the realization that this will be a long journey).  Years of school taught me my preferred learning style (that I don’t think many of you would really want to employ):  if I read something that I know I want to remember, I take complete handwritten notes and then transfer these notes to my computer.  For each of the past food or environmental books (including ‘Omnivore’s Dilemma’, ‘Fast Food Nation’, and ‘No Impact Man’) I’ve read, I did this, and now if there’s something I’ve forgotten or something I want to reference, I can simply open my notes.

I picked up ‘Eating Animals’ in November, after reading an excerpt from it in the New York Times magazine, scanning numerous reviews, and hearing Foer speak.  Despite all of my pre-reading research, I started ‘Eating Animals’ with a fairly open mind.  In person, I found Foer to be an eloquent speaker, sharing excerpts and stories calmly and rationally, without malice (even fielding a few off-the-wall comments about pet food with grace).   He exuded a strong faith in his beliefs, but he made it clear that his goal wasn’t to convert others.  He did make it clear, however, that while his goal wasn’t to make us all vegetarians, he couldn’t think of a single good reason that anyone could support factory farming.  I am in complete agreement.

Before I read this book, I already considered myself a selective omnivore.  For the past 7 months, my meat intake has been extremely limited due to multiple requirements:  the meat must come from an actual family farm (not a made up family farm!); the animals must have been raised honoring their species specific behaviors (whether this is being pastured, access to nesting, etc); the animals must be fed appropriate food (not their own species’ animal parts fed back to them); the animals must be treated with respect and not be injected with growth hormones or antibiotics; the farm should be transparent in their operations . Also the animal shouldn’t be forced to produce more than it is naturally capable of (eggs and milk).  So obviously my meat intake has been limited to what I can buy at the farmers’ market or at specific restaurants that share the sources of all of their food.

  • There are typically 33,000 birds per shed (45 foot by 490 long):  these birds are deformed, drugged, overstressed in a filthy, waste-coated room; 95% of chickens become infected with E Coli.
  • A USDA inspector looks at about 25,000 birds a day (basic logic-these birds are not getting proper examinations).
  • 99% of US poultry uses water immersion (in filthy water) to chill the chicken, resulting in the carcass absorbing a great amount of water weight (1% of US poultry is air chilled, which actually reduces the bird’s weight).  The USDA allows up to 11% ‘liquid absorption’ (filthy!), so customers are paying for added water weight when they purchase chicken.
  • For a typical pig (in a non factory farm situation), weaning takes about 15 weeks; for a pig in a factory farm, weaning takes 15 days.
  • Breeding sows spend their entire lives in horrific gestation crates:  typically 2 feet small, with no room to move, no bedding, no separate place to distinguish sleeping or defacating, and starved.  As seen as the sows give birth, the piglets are taken away from them and they are repregnanted.  The sows are slaughtered as soon as they spot being productive breeders.

I could continue to list facts, but in the interest of space (and if you’re planning on reading ‘Eating Animals’), I’ll stop there.

Foer’s structure in ‘Eating Animals’ was at times confusing.  Instead of dividing his book up into coherent segments (ala Michael Pollan), he retained his literary style and focused his chapters around key phrases like ‘Hiding/Seeking’ and ‘Influence/Speechlessness’.  He discussed his own culinary traditions; he visited several factory farms; he talked with influential farmers and organizations (the Nimans, Paul Willis, Farm Forward, Farm Sanctuary) and had these people and organizations write segments of the book to allow the reader to understand multiple viewpoints.

I found Foer’s descriptions of factory slaughtering and animal conditions to be nauseating and I frequently had to put the book down.  In addition, even when Foer wasn’t talking about factory farmed meat, I thought his arguments about not eating meat were compelling, particularly his discussion on the cultural differences in meat consumption:  where one country wouldn’t think twice about eating a dog, while another country would never eat a cow. What’s the difference?  Is there a difference?

Foer starts ‘Eating Animals’ by saying that a lot of us ‘seem to think only about the edges of an argument’; most people fall into an all or nothing framework.  I don’t feel that I do.  I do not feel that if I choose to become a vegetarian I’m absolved from worrying about animal treatment.  I also don’t feel that if I choose to remain a selective carnivore, I am contributing to the downfall of the world.

I believe in ethical treatment; I believe in moderation; I believe in asking questions.

The only relatively concrete conclusion I’ve made after reading ‘Eating Animals’ is to abstain from eating pork products (goodbye bacon).  95% of pork products in the US come from factory farms.  Pigs have arguably some of the worst conditions in these farms and are brutally slaughtered.  In addition, research has found that pigs are quite intelligent (just as smart as your dog), with many advanced species specific behaviors.

‘Eating Animals’ is not a one-sided argument, but rather one man’s journey into vegetarianism and the situations and conversations that led him to become one.   I found the book to be powerful and am planning on continuing to learn more.

If you’re interested in learning more about animal welfare and ending factory farming, check out Farm Sanctuary and Farm Forward.