Jonathan Safran Foer speaks with the reasoning of a vegetarian, the skepticism of an investigative journalist and the concern of a parent in Eating Animals. This persuasive narrative forces us to ask why we have ignored the issues associated with factory-farmed meat and fish for so long. We’ve done so, Foer argues, by telling ourselves a fable about our relation to the animals we eat.
Our story about meat is a longstanding one with the quality of a dream. We like to imagine animals and humans living side-by-side on rural pastureland. In exchange for a life free of suffering, animals “consent” to being eaten. Foer spells out this “myth of animal consent” to expose our “ambivalence about the violence and death dealing inherent in eating animals.” Probing our psychological relationship with food, he makes an argument for vegetarianism but ultimately proposes a more humane system for raising and killing animals.
As a novelist, Foer’s main concern is for his materials, namely words. So to tell this story, he deconstructs the language of food, devoting an entire chapter to redefining words used to describe factory farming. “Suffering” is not as much about the science of pain as it is about our ability to feel what the object of that pain is experiencing. “Cruelty” is a conscious apathy toward “unnecessary suffering” and it depends on our “ability to choose against it, or to choose to ignore it.” “Cage-free” literally means that birds are not in cages but actually says nothing about their living conditions. “KFC” no longer stands for fried chicken but more often for animal cruelty (“workers were documented tearing heads off live birds, spitting tobacco into their eyes, spray-painting their faces, and violently stomping on them”). He titles one section “Our New Sadism” wherein we hear revolting testaments to human barbarism. So when Foer quotes a factory farmer (“You simply can’t feed billions of people free-range eggs”), we hear instead Foer’s definition of “free-range”: “Imagine a shed containing thirty thousand chickens, with a small door at one end that opens to a five-by-five dirt patch—and the door is closed all but occasionally.”
Foer then sets out to engage with others about eating meat. His hypothetical debates with Michael Pollan on eating animals lead Foer towards a critique of The Omnivore’s Dilemma in which he states that the book ultimately is a “disavowal of the real horror we inflict.” When he takes an illegal trip to a poultry farm with the animal activist named “C,” we relive Foer’s disturbing experience and read C’s testimony. There are voices from a factory farm, a small scale poultry farm and a small pig farm. There is a vegetarian cattle rancher who believes in her decision not to eat meat but is aware that “the meat industry affects everybody … all of us, living in a society in which food production is based on factory farming.” There is the voice of Foer’s own grandmother, a World War II survivor whose relationship with food means everything from “terror” to “gratitude.” There are voices of the voiceless chickens, fish, pigs and cows whose short lives are documented step-by-step in chapters on raising and processing within factory farms and industrial fisheries. What began as one person’s desire to know what meat is — “where does it come from? how is it produced?” — becomes our universal problem.
But perhaps the most striking and sobering question asked in Eating Animals is, “What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?” What do we do on the day when we discover that most of our meat is tainted? Don’t these facts force us to ask what it means to be human?
Foer’s argument stops short of considering this question only in his consideration of food production and the environment. He does offer a two-page definition for environmentalism as “concern for the preservation and restoration of natural resources and the ecological systems that sustain human life.” He does not, however, press the reader to consider the false stories we tell ourselves about our responsibility for global warming. We are given an elementary lesson on food production and greenhouse gas emissions. We learn about dead zones and the toxicity of manure lagoons. But he glides over pivotal questions about the meat industry that takes into account the importance of a healthy earth.
Still, Foer has a specific agenda: reinvent the system with the help of “modern technology and traditional husbandry” and restore the growth of husbandry-based ranching. It is helpful that Foer, a strict vegetarian, recognizes that Americans like to eat meat and they probably always will. Therefore, admitting that “ethical meat is a promissory note, not a reality” places his agenda at an appropriate distance from our current food mentality. If we want change, then we must subscribe to a story filled with different facts than the ones we accept unthinkingly. “The secrecy that has enabled the factory farm is breaking down:” 76 million Americans get sick each year from the food they eat. Less than 2% of the American population works in agriculture. Long-line fishing kills 4.5 million sea animals a year—and this is just the number of dead animals thrown back into the sea as by-catch. Numbers help tell the story of a world that should be valued more than our cravings.