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REVIEW: "Eating Animals" by Jonathan Safran Foer

A new nonfiction book by Jonathan Safran Foer
A new nonfiction book by Jonathan Safran Foer
Little, Brown

All throughout elementary school, I was obsessed with magic. (Control yourself: that’s not the most embarrassing part of this story.) Specifically, the kind of magic practiced by magicians—or, as the hardcore enthusiasts like I once was refer to them: illusionists. I think it started when I watched a movie about Harry Houdini, saw him slip out of padlocked straitjackets and defy both death and doubters as he hung, handcuffed, upside down in a fiendish cage of water. However the fascination began, once I was hooked I watched every video and read every book I could get my hands, reveling most of all in detailed, diagramed descriptions of the ingenious tricks behind the miraculous acts.

Which makes my behavior on one particular childhood night all the more baffling—and humiliating. Gripping the edge of my seat in a delirious, red-knuckled state of anticipation, I tried to catch my breath while (cheesy) symphony music swirled around the opening credits for what promised to be the Most Amazing Live Presentation of Illusionism Ever! Just as I was about to burst with ecstasy, my mom, sitting on the sofa, looked over at me and asked, hesitantly and a little incredulous, “You know that it’s just tricks, right? Like it isn’t really magic?” I did burst then, into ridiculous, shirt-wetting tears. By that point, I was something of an authority on almost every illusion performed by every magician ever. And yet, still, the suggestion that these illusions were just that, illusions, was crushing. If there was any magic left flickering in our dark living room that night, it must have been in my mind, empowering me to forget so much of what I’d learned about illusionism, so that I could still see a miracle where there was only a trick.

Another, more common variety of such magical thinking is the subject of Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book (and his first work of nonfiction), Eating Animals (Little, Brown; $25.99). A thoroughly post-modern writer, Foer’s fiction is equal parts unconventional and engaging. His first novel, Everything Is Illuminated (2002), deployed a fleet of contemporary literary devices (time shifts, stream of consciousness, fake histories) in pursuit of an engrossing, intimate story, winning the author widespread acclaim, several awards, and the royalties to a Hollywood adaption.

Eating Animals is similarly unconventional: each chapter begins with a single food-related statistic surrounded by impressionistic graphic art (created by Tom Manning); first-person narration, reportorial descriptions, fully transcribed interviews, and philosophical questioning (Foer studied philosophy at Princeton) all butt against another on the pages; and the book’s seemingly intuitive structure is not the kind you usually find in a work of investigative nonfiction (perhaps best exemplified in the chapter titled, “Slices of Paradise/Pieces of Shit”). Indeed, the unwieldy organization of the book, which at times feels more clumsy than clever, suggests just how massive and complicated an undertaking this is. Foer is attempting not simply to scrutinize the internal operations of the food industry, or parse the implications of eating once-sentient life forms, or analyze the politics of putting this and not that on our plates, but rather to do all of those things (and a few others), and to tell it as a story. What this effort represents, to me, is the exact opposite of the type of magical thinking that allows Americans to spend vast amounts of money (40 billion dollars a year, to be exact) on household pets, and then even more money (the meat industry brings in 140 billion dollars a year in sales) on farm animals—which they eat. Foer is asking, and attempting to respond to, two crucial questions: what kind of sleight of hand is behind the gleaming packaged foods we find in the grocery, and why, even when we know the shocking basics of the food industry’s tricks, are we still captive to its illusions?

Foer apparently spent about three years working on this project: researching, visiting farms (including a poultry farm onto which he trespassed with an animal rights activist), talking to food workers and experts of all types, and writing. The investigative parts of the book center around animals (cattle, pigs, birds, and fish) on industrial and family-owned farms. Though he spends a significant portion of time on those family farms, his real focus is necessarily on industrial farming since the vast majority (upwards of 99 percent) of the meat Americans consume come from factory farms.

Foer’s definition of factory farming is accurate and disturbing. It is, practically speaking, “a system of industrialized and intensive agriculture in which animals—often housed by the tens or even hundreds of thousands—are genetically engineered, restricted in mobility, and fed unnatural diets (which almost always include various drugs, like antimicrobials)." But more fundamentally, this type of agriculture is a “mind-set: reduce production costs to the absolute minimum and systematically ignore or ‘externalize’ such costs as environmental degradation, human disease, and animal suffering.”

After he defines the terms (actually, one whole chapter is a glossary of sorts), he gets into the nitty-gritty of what all this actually looks (and smells and, of course, tastes) like. As you might expect, what he finds is revolting and revealing on the order of The Jungle. It’s worth noting that besides his one act of late-night reconnaissance with the animal rights activist, most of the rest of what Foer describes about how animals are raised, handled, transported, and slaughtered is based on worker testimonies, undercover videos, and the rare auditor’s report. This says nothing about the author’s investigation (documented in a sixty page “Notes” section), and everything about the industry’s practices. As Foer states, “The power brokers of factory farming know that their business model depends on consumers not being able to see (or hear about) what they do.”

Among all the horrifying data and descriptions of factory farming in Eating Animals, the explanation Foer provides of chicken farming has haunted me the most. Despite the scale of the operation (there are 50 billion factory-farmed birds worldwide), it’s the mental images of individual birds that linger: mutated into monstrous shapes, trapped in claustrophobic cages, wide-eyed and conscious while their throats are slit. So, in outline version, it’s Foer’s sketch of chicken farming that I’ll share:

  • Chickens are genetically engineered and fed drug-laced food to “grow big fast on as little feed as possible,” resulting in obscenely top-heavy birds that walk with difficulty and can’t reproduce.

  • The birds, tens of thousands of which are housed in a single room each with about a printer paper-sized amount of space, develop deformities, injuries, and infections. (As Foer puts it: “Needless to say, jamming deformed, drugged, overstressed birds together in a filthy, waste-coated room is not very healthy.”)

  • More than 95 percent of chickens become infected with E. coli, “an indicator of fecal contamination.”

  • About 30 percent (that is, more than one in four) “of all live birds arriving at the slaughterhouse have freshly broken bones as a result of their Frankenstein genetics and rough handling.”

  • The United States Department of Agriculture interprets the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act to exempt chicken slaughter, which is obvious when considering the way chickens are “processed.”

  • The live birds are pulled through an electrified water bath that uses only enough voltage to immobilize them, but not to render them unconscious. (Only about one-tenth the level of voltage necessary to leave the animals fully unconscious is used).

  • Both automated throat-slitters and human backups are utilized to kill the birds. However, often one or both fail, resulting in about 180 million chickens a year that are improperly slaughtered.

  • Automatic eviscerators slit open the dead chickens and remove their guts. However, the “high-speed machines commonly rip open intestines, releasing feces into the birds’ body cavities.” In response, “the poultry industry convinced the USDA to reclassify feces” so that it is now deemed a “cosmetic blemish,” and isn’t considered cause to condemn a bird that has been contaminated with it.

  • The birds are inspected by USDA officials who have about two seconds to examine each of the 25,000 birds they see a day, inside and out. Foer quotes Scott Bronstein of the Atlantic Journal-Constitution, who conducted a lengthy investigation of poultry inspection: “Every week millions of chickens leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria, or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumors, or skin conditions are shipped for sale to consumers.”

  • At the end of processing, the chickens are cooled en masse in a giant refrigerated tank of “fouled, chlorinated water” that some, like industry expert Tom Devine, call “fecal soup,” on account of “all the filth and bacteria floating around.” This system “practically assur[es] cross-contamination.” Though air-chilling systems are available and used throughout Europe and Canada, water-cooling systems are preferred (and deemed legal) in the US because they enable the dead birds to soak up the water (the “fecal soup”) and increase their weight. Foer asserts that the poultry industry treats the water-cooling systems as an opportunity to “turn wastewater into tens of millions of dollars’ worth of additional weight in poultry products.”

Oddly enough, I’ve only become concerned with the chickens, and the cows and pigs and fish, since I’ve stopped eating them. Like most people, when these animals constituted a significant portion of the stuff I chewed on and swallowed each day, I didn’t like to think of them as living, feeling creatures (many pages of Eating Animals are devoted to what we might mean here by “feeling”). But it wasn’t a sudden recognition of my meat as a once-living being that forced me all at once, several years ago now, to stop eating it. Actually, it was a serious consideration of the environmental consequences of factory farming that really did it.

Quite simply, animal agriculture is the number one cause of climate change in the world. As Foer notes, the industrial farming of animals “makes a 40 % greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined.” Every aspect of this type of farming is implicated: from the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides made from fossil fuels, to the heavy machinery needed to run massive farms with few human workers, to the transportation of animals and processed meat (“food miles”), to the animals themselves which emit greenhouse gasses. As bestselling author and professor Michael Pollan put it in an interview:

  • ....we have essentially taken this sun-driven process called photosynthesis, and we’ve put it on a diet of fossil fuel to make it more productive and, basically, to replace labor on the farm. I mean, you know, only one percent of Americans are feeding the rest of us. It’s astounding.  How do they do it? Well, lots of fossil fuel.

Beyond being destructive of the atmosphere, factory farms are profoundly wasteful. For example, ten pounds of grain are required to produce one pound of beef. The 756 million tons of grain and corn used each year for animal agriculture could easily feed the 1.4 billion humans who are hungry. Yet some people like to eat meat—and for cheap—so most of our grain and corn (and 98 percent of all soy) is used to produce meat.

Factory farming is full of waste in another sense too: animal waste, which is produced in ungodly amounts, but for which no real waste-treatment infrastructure exists. Foer explains:

  • The problem is quite simple: massive amounts of shit. So much shit, so poorly managed, that it seeps into rivers, lakes, and oceans—killing wildlife and polluting air, water, and land in ways devastating to human health.

Not only do animals produce a lot of waste (130 times as much as the human population), but the polluting strength of their waste is “160 times greater than raw municipal sewage.” When animals leave behind such immense quantities of powerful waste and industrial farms do nothing more with it than dump it into huge holding ponds, the consequences should not be surprising: thousands of miles of American waterways become dangerously contaminated, killing nearby wildlife and, sometimes, humans as well.

There are lots of reasons that compel consumers to renounce factory farmed meat and fish. For some, like myself initially, it’s the environmental costs. For others, the cruelty knowingly inflicted on animals is too great to bear. There are other, very persuasive causes too: the high incidence of food borne illness related to industrial farming; the creation of drug-resistant “superbugs” brought on by the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in farmed animals; the destruction of rural communities and the annihilation of small farming; the inhumane and exploitative working conditions in many (if not most) meat processing facilities; the exacerbation of global poverty caused by the allotment of land and resources to animal farming.

Whatever their reasons, many people are left wondering how to respond to factory farming— how to “eat with care,” as we’re increasingly implored to do. As is often the case, the problems here are infinitely clearer than the solutions. In recent years, the market for “organic” foods has steadily increased. However, the standards for such foods—particularly when it comes to meat—are questionable at best. For example, “free-range” chickens must simply have “access” to the outdoors, which allows for the chickens to be packed in the usual, absurdly overcrowded sheds, as long as there exists at least one tiny door, which the chickens often don’t or can’t use and which may actually be closed much of the time. (Foer: “I could keep a flock of hens under my sink and call them free-range.”) The “free-range” label can be counted among the plethora of food industry initiatives cynically intended to co-opt the public’s interest in food that is healthier, more natural, and less environmentally destructive.

For some people, then, the answer is family farms. The Ominvore’s Dilemma author, Michael Pollan, touts such farms and, in this book, Foer spends a lot of time visiting them and talking to the few men and women who run them. In general, these farmers, outside of the industrial system, use less or no synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, feed their animals better corn or grain or grass, and adopt significantly higher standards in the treatment of their animals—from their birth to their slaughter. As they contend, heroically, with the corporate, industrial farming system, these family farmers appear to be motivated by a commitment to healthy food, a respect for the environment, and the humane treatment of animals, if not more than profits, than at least as much as.

The reason why such farms represent more of a future ideal than a present solution, though, is their extreme scarcity. Currently, family farms account for less than one percent of the meat sold in the US. Not only have industrial farms run these smaller farms out of business, but also they have decimated the basic infrastructure that these farms rely upon: from grain, to chicks, to slaughterhouses, factory farms control every aspect of the industry. While many conscientious, committed small farms report record demand for their products, most simply don’t have the capacity to meet the demand.

Confronted with the all out destructiveness of factory farms and the extreme scarcity of family farms, some people make a more radical decision in regards to meat: they choose to abstain from eating it completely. Jonathan Safran Foer himself decides, after much agonizing, experimenting and, finally, resolutely considering the facts, that he won’t eat meat anymore. He explains:

  • I love sushi. I love fried chicken, I love a good steak. But there is a limit to my love….for me, for now—for my family now—my concerns about the reality of what meat is and has become are enough to make me give it up altogether.

Unfortunately, Foer stops short of following his reasoning to its logical conclusion: that no one for whom a vegetarian diet is a viable option should choose to eat meat. Instead, he wavers, drawing an unconvincing comparison between insisting upon vegetarianism for all and telling all parents how to discipline their children. For my part, in light of the patently unsustainable and irresponsible practices of factory farms, the limited availability of family farmed meat, the authoritative studies (cited in this book) that conclude that “vegetarianism is at least as healthy as a diet that includes meat” (and yes, you can get just as much of the types of protein you need from this diet as you can from a meat-eating one), the devastating impact of meat production on the environment, the radical inefficiency inherent in producing meat (and the direct relationship between this inefficiency and world hunger), and the fundamental philosophical and ethical uncertainty that surrounds eating other living, conscious creatures (particularly when you don’t have to), I fail to see why the decision to eat meat should be any less acceptable than the one to dump toxic chemicals into a river or to torture and kill (slaughter?) a pet dog.

In most parts of the developed world, it would be difficult for anyone to argue either that factory farming is not destructive, or that they are unaware of just how harmful it is. Instead, they might contend that factory farming is probably bad, but it’s the best we’ve got, or that vegetarianism might be the ideal, but it just isn’t practical for most people. Both arguments are wafer-thin. But of course, their purpose isn’t really to convince, but rather to deflect: criticism, scrutiny, responsibility.

Like my willful, childish denial of the sleight of hand that is the magician’s true magic, most of us are nearly superhuman in our quest to avoid deeply and rigorously considering how the plants and animals of the world become the chewy stuff in our mouths. In the same way that withholding key elements of the truth is lying, refusing to look squarely at the facts is to reject them. The apparent dearth of solutions to our food problem is not justification for a dearth of clear thinking about the issue. Yes, closely observing how our food is produced, and at what cost, will be disturbing. And, yes, this act of looking will demand an active, unambiguous response on your part. As Foer puts it, “We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?” By now, the spell has been broken: we know, more or less, what the “farms” of today are really like. The question is whether we will live differently on account of this knowledge, or whether we’ll continue to season each meal with a pinch of magical thinking.


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