Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals

In Eating Animals Jonathan Safran Foer doesn’t tell us much that we don’t already know about eating animals in America. This is, as he points out throughout the book, one of the most disturbing aspects of being an American meat eater today: there’s a willful blindness to it, as consumers know that their chicken has been pumped full of chicken-flavored liquid to compensate for the bird’s lack of flavor (this being not dissimilar, weird as it sounds, to apples that look great but don’t really taste like anything), that their meat, milk and eggs come from animals pumped full of drugs, and that even meat or animal products stickered “cage-free” or “range-free” came from miserable animals with only the most marginal access to the outdoors and no access to what we would consider a normal or humane life.

Foer’s book is a necessary one, one that should be read by anyone eating factory farmed meat (which is pretty much everyone) or not (which is everyone else), because he addresses some topics that don’t come up in other books, like those from the Michael Pollan crowd, on eating in America. Foer focuses heavily on the cultural aspects of food; he tells stories about his grandmother’s cooking, and how her relationship with food influenced his own, and influenced his thoughts on what he wants his son’s cultural relationship with food to be. As he writes, “Food ethics are so complex because food is bound to both taste buds and taste, to individual biographies and social histories.”

He writes, too, about how it’s not merely the day to day of factory farming that is cruel, but the very genetics of the animals, which we’ve bred for the amount of meat they can quickly provide us rather than their ability to naturally reproduce or walk without pain; even the vast majority of the “best” farms are raising these same genetically cursed animals.

From 1935 to 1995, the average weight of “broilers” increased by 65 percent, while their time-to-market dropped 60 percent and their feed requirements dropped 57 percent. To gain a sense of the radicalness of this change, imagine human children growing to be three hundred pounds in ten years, while eating only granola bars and Flintstones vitamins.

Skeptical as I was about reading a novelist’s take on factory farming, Foer brings something to the story that others haven’t been able to; he draws comparisons more vividly than many other writers can, and though he is ultimately advocating a vegetarian diet, he never seems preachy about it. He opens the book to others, printing letters from an animal activist, a rancher, and a factory farmer, among others. And while he sometimes picks at the sustainable meat producers, the sort that Michael Pollan heaped praise on in his Omnivore’s Dilemma, his criticism works in view of his larger argument for vegetarianism. Unlike Pollan, who advocates eating meat sometimes, and seeking out sustainably produced meat, Foer leans towards removing meat from the diet altogether. It is, he argues, not a necessary part of the diet, and it is near-impossible to wade through the dozens of meaningless labels assuring consumers of the humane production of their food to find meat that has, actually, been humanely produced.

Near book’s end, Foer writes, “No one loves to eat as much as we do, and when we change what we eat, the world changes.” Foer’s book is all about accepting responsibility, about understanding the ways we interact with our food and then moving toward a healthier and more sustainable and humane diet, and if he sometimes picks fights with other writers, like Pollan, who have done a lot to advance this cause, it remains a pleasure to hear his voice – advocating not just more mindful eating of meat but no eating of meat, not until we have a system that we can be certain is handling animals humanely.


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Excellent review. I really need to get around to reading this.

Comment by Nymeth

Great review! I’ve had this one on my nook for a really long time.

Comment by Melissa

Great review. I have read this and liked it a lot. I had forgotten about the quote: “Food ethics are so complex because food is bound to both taste buds and taste, to individual biographies and social histories.” And I must say I love the insight.

Comment by Iris

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