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R&R 112 | Eating Animals

Jonathan Safran Foer
Eating Animals
First published in: 2009
This edition: Penguin, 2010 UK
ISBN: 978-0-241-95083-8
Genre: non-fiction / sociology
Pages: 270 (excluding notes/references; with notes total comes to 331)
Cover design by Gray318


I've been a fan of Jonathan Safran Foer's work ever since I first heard of EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED, his first novel – without having even read it yet, I knew I already would love it – and sure enough, I did. I've devoured both of his fictional works with a kind of devotion; naturally when his newest work was published, I already knew I had to read it. Even though it is drastically different from the books that chronicle Foer's quest in Ukraine, a boy's touching adventure after his father's death.

EATING ANIMALS is about meat, and the choices people make regarding (not) eating it.

This is not a lecture. This is very, very important to note, straight up, before I say anything else. Foer does take a stand, and is a vegetarian himself, but he's not going to judge anyone for including meat in their diet.

Jonathan Safran Foer had, prior to beginning his research for this book, tried to be a vegetarian a number of times. Something about it did matter to him, but he wasn't sure how to formulate his reasoning behind the "to eat or not to eat?" dilemma. With a baby on the way, he decided that it was now important enough for him to really discover the meaning of eating animals – what was he going to teach his child about food? Food is an important part of rituals and memories; it's a part of life. What place does meat have for Foer and his family?

I have been a vegetarian since I was a month shy of 10 years old. I had my last piece of meat on Boxing Day, 1992. It was a sausage of some kind.
So why would I pick up a book that questions meat eating when I had already made a pretty steady decision? Because maybe I felt it wasn't enough. But also because I sought for a way to be able to explain to myself – to put into words – why I made this decision. I'd get asked so many times: "Why don't you eat meat?" and I'd often find myself a little flabbergasted. Because I didn't want to? A good reason for sure, but I think I'm going to be in the same position as Foer was in:

One day I'd like to have kids. What are we going to teach them? What is my point of view, my reasoning? Wil and I do find ourselves discussing exactly what Foer and his wife, author Nicole Krauss, must have been discussing when they realized they were with child: what are we going to do for our children? Wil eats meat, I don't. Wil's a farmer's son, I'm a city girl. In a way, reading this man's essay was a personal quest for me, as well. A teacher's guide.

Eating Animals is Jonathan Safran Foer's personal essay – but one that can resonate with anyone who reads it. Whether you eat meat, or not. Foer isn't encouraging anyone to forego meat. But he does make a passionate case against factory farming. And that's basically the main focus of the book: if you eat meat, eat with care.

Foer has a good point: How come we humans flinch when someone so much as pulls a dog's leash too hard, but we turn a blind eye at the way cows, pigs and other livestock are treated prior to slaughter – not to even mention during slaughter?
Why are we outraged at whaling practices in Japan, but happily eat porkchops originating from factory farms where a pig doesn't have the room to do anything except stand, slaughterhouses where slaughter is done so carelessly, so inhumanely, that sometimes pigs are slaughtered while still conscious? (Foer's research is limited to the United States, but this doesn't mean everything happens properly everywhere else.)

It's possible it's simple unawareness. Perhaps it's habit, or dissociating a steak on a plate from a slaughterhouse – people often choose to ignore whatever happens prior to that one moment they pay for their groceries at the supermarket. But part of it is probably also simple unwillingness to pay more for animal welfare.

Foer isn't happy with factory farms, but recognizes that they exist because the consumer allows them to exist by demanding cheap meat. Less money for more meat – the demand only increases. Consequences (animal cruelty / neglect, increasing human resistance to antibiotics) be damned. Small family farms? They can't survive. Foer understands – as I do – that farmers depend on selling their product in order to have food on their own plates. A farmer's livelihood should be considered too.

But a factory farm isn't a quaint little farm. It isn't run by a farmer and his wife, up in the morning at 6AM milking cows, chickens and Babe the Pig roaming around outside. Factory farms are companies, run by men in business suits. It isn't about animals and taking care of them, it's about profit and finding ways to make more profit at the expense of animal welfare. More profit. More. More. A small family farm which would (if the farmer so chooses) have the means to do better by their animals doesn't stand a chance, not when people aren't willing to shell out a few more dollars for meat – for better animal treatment. A family farm has to give into factory farming to survive. The quaint friendly farms are disappearing. And so are animal rights.

Once again, this is NOT about Foer telling you to be a vegetarian. It's about Foer pointing out the importance of animal welfare versus (let's just put it how it is) animal cruelty. Animal welfare versus cheaper meat from factory farming.

I have to hand it to this guy: Foer's a fine novelist, but he's an excellent and in my opinion a fair essayist on top of that. Foer comes to his conclusions based on several sources, but also bases his findings on interviews he's had with people from all sides: factory farmers, slaughterhouse employees, someone from PETA, vegetarian who's also a farmer, a heritage turkey farmer, all of whom share their experiences with the author.

Some of these experiences, particularly towards the end of the novel, are gruesome: Foer describes, in detail, the process of slaughter and what (too often) can go wrong. I have a strong stomach, but even I have had to put the book down a few times because I felt nauseated by these accounts. The little girl I used to be, almost 10 years old, stopped eating meat because of what she could imagine would happen to these animals. And you can say, "it only happens to 1 in a thousand pigs". It's one too damn many.

The young woman I am today, 18 years since my dietary change, isn't naive: slaughter is slaughter. Animals are being killed. To me, animals are animals – whales, dogs, chickens and pigs. I value all of their lives. Slaughter continues to be hard to swallow for both the 9 year-old girl I used to be, and the 27 year old woman I am today. But my decision and feelings regarding this specifically are personal; I don't judge anyone who does eat meat. (Wil and I are polar opposites but we respect each other's diets completely.) To me, one's dietary decision is as personal as one's religion.

But I refuse to spend a dime on factory farming. And that is what I plan to teach my future children.

I want to thank Jonathan Safran Foer for taking the time to put together this passionate essay, and for guiding me (one reader of what I hope are many), in finding a personal way for the future.

Read this book.

Karin Elizabeth
  • Thanks for this review. I must admit most of the other reviews I've seen of this book led me to think that it was preachy, mostly because the reviewers equate eating meat with factory farming throughout the review, and I couldn't be sure if Foer did the same. Since reading Omnivore's Dilemma, I've been gradually weaning myself of factory farm meat (and eggs, *especially* eggs). It's not an industry I want to support in any way. I'm lucky enough to have access to meat and eggs from a small farm, but even so, the cost keeps me from ever buying much. And I'm ok with that. As you say, it's a personal decision, but one that I believe we all need to actually think through.

    December 15, 2010 at 1:53 am
  • The look on your face is priceless!

    Also good to know that the author isn't preachy about his beliefs. I'm a big animal lover but I also enjoy eating meat which often makes me feel uncomfortable with myself :/

    December 15, 2010 at 2:22 pm

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