Book Review: Eating Animals

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Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Book Publication: 2009

Having children, especially your first, impacts tremendously on one’s thinking, doing, and being. For author Jonathan Safran Foer, the birth of his first child led him to investigate (over a three-year period) the ethical, philosophical, environmental, and health issues related to eating meat, because, as he says, “I simply wanted to know – for myself and my family – what meat is.” His personal quest didn’t remain one for long. The result is the brilliant, hard-hitting, and thought-provoking Eating Animals.

Although Foer clearly believes it is the only moral choice, this book is not about converting the reader to vegetarianism. Rather, it is about the horrifying impact of factory farming, currently representing 99% of all food animal agriculture. Through a series of stories, interviews, and scientific reporting, Foer speaks compellingly about the abject cruelty, the damage to water supplies, climate change, and the threat to human health – all attributable to factory farming.

Even a small sampling of Foer’s revelations into the cruelty perpetrated at factory farms is enough to make one feel sick and ashamed: “Broiler chickens typically spend their lives in windowless sheds. At slaughtering time, they are shackled by their feet, hung from a conveyor belt, and dipped into an electrified bath known as ‘the stunner.’…. Shortly after birth, piglets have their tails chopped off; before being butchered, hogs are typically incapacitated with a tong-like instrument designed to induce cardiac arrest…. And you never have to wonder if the fish on your plate had to suffer. It did.”

Eating Animals also confronts the harsh toll that the factory farms of today are taking on human health: “Any talk of pandemic influenza today ….has everything to do with the health of the world’s farmed animals.” Foer explains that scientists have been able to trace six of the eight genetic segments of the currently most feared virus (H5N1) in the world to U.S. factory farms.

He also raises the concern about microbes. If we get sick, there may be no way to make us better. In the U.S., as Foer reports, people are prescribed about three million pounds of antibiotics a year. Scientists have estimated that livestock are fed nearly twenty-five million pounds each year (for the most part non-therapeutic). By pumping cows and chickens full of antibiotics, farmers have been instrumental in producing new, resistant strains of germs. Foer cites a report in the New England Journal of Medicine that shows an eightfold increase in antimicrobial resistance from 1992 to 1997.

Additionally, there are the food-borne illnesses (salmonella, e-coli.) which sicken 76 million Americans alone each year. And then there’s the tainted water issue, with the Environmental Protection Agency indicating that animal waste “has already polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in twenty-two states.”

Foer’s writing style – though somewhat chaotic as it shifts from various formats, including lists of words and their meanings, interviews, and personal stories – is riveting. We learn his take on such words as free range, organic, PETA and KFC. He gives voice, through interviews, to contrasting interests like vegan activists and traditional, as well as factory, farmers. And he threads his own personal history with stories about his Holocaust survivor grandmother’s cooking and hoarding habits, along with a midnight foray into a chicken factory farm.

His work invokes equal parts shock, horror, and humour (his biting satirical commentary hits its mark every time).

Foer poses many questions in Eating Animals, some rhetorical, others confusing and unanswerable; most, however, are impossible to ignore. Ultimately, the one we all must address, not only for the sake of the animals, but of humanity and the planet we are slowly destroying, is: how much suffering (whether it is the animals we eat, or our own as a side effect of that eating) are we willing to tolerate for our food?

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