Book Review: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

A few months ago I wrote a blog post called “The First And Last Time I’ll Talk About Veganism”. In the post I vaguely promised that I would not be expounding frequently (or ever again) about veganism, at least not on this blog. This book review is a narrow dodge of that promise: I’m not talking about veganism directly. I’m talking about a book. That someone else wrote. That works, right? I haven’t broken my promise.

Passed to me coincidentally when my sister Elena brought home a copy and I had just been introduced to JSF’s work via his debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, I couldn’t help but think I was fated, in some way, to read this book. I suppose we’re all destined to read the books we read, in a broad sense, but rarely do I feel so drawn to a text as to feel that it was inevitable, that I had no choice but to read this book, that it was going to find its way into my hands one way or another. In this case, it happened to be at the exact right time.

Late in April I began to read it. I finished the book this past Tuesday. Rarely, if ever, do I read nonfiction, and when I do, it tends to take on the order of months for me to finish, not days or weeks. That alone is a testament to the impact this book has made on me.

That, and the fact that I can’t shut up about it.

Eating Animals JSF

Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, is as much a philosophical examination of the way we eat and why that is important, as it is a book about meat-eating. It begins with a personal anecdote about JSF’s grandmother, a survivor of the Holocaust whose reverence for food stems from her close call with starvation as she fled the Nazis. But it is precisely her reverence for the caloric importance of food that introduces us to the idea that even when we are starving, what we eat still matters.

‘The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.’

‘He saved your life.’

‘I didn’t eat it…It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork…’

‘What, because it wasn’t kosher?’

‘Of course.’

‘But not even to save your life?’

‘If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.’

This story, about a starving Jewish woman who refused to eat pork because it wasn’t kosher, even when that decision could have condemned her to death, informs the rest of the book.

“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

The rest of the book is a philosophical, intellectual, and very physical examination of what really matters in the business of raising and killing animals for food. JSF breaks into a top-security factory farm with an animal rights’ activist to risk giving the turkeys kept there some water. He speaks with several different “ethical” farmers who are trying to do things the old way – the “right” way. He examines, in excruciating detail, the gruesome and horrifying ways animals on factory farms are bred, raised, imprisoned, killed, and eventually, turned into food for our consumption. On the subject of broiler chickens:

Needless to say, jamming deformed, drugged, overstressed birds together in a filthy, waste-coated room is not very healthy. Beyond deformities, eye damage, blindness, bacterial infections of bones, slipped vertebrae, paralysis, internal bleeding, anemia, slipped tendons, twisted lower legs and necks, respiratory diseases, and weakened immune systems are frequent and long-standing problems on factory farms…virtually all chickens become infected with E. coli and between 39 and 75 percent of chickens in retail stores are still infected. Around 8 percent of birds are infected with salmonella…Seventy to 90 percent are infected with another potentially deadly pathogen, campylobacter.

He discusses the pollution and health externalities that, when factored out of the equation, have allowed meat corporations (note I don’t say “farmers”) to cut the cost of meat down to its lowest price per pound in millennia:

The impression the pig industry wishes to give is that fields can absorb the toxins in hog feces, but we know this isn’t true. Runoff creeps into waterways, and poisonous gases like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide evaporate into the air. When the football field-sized cesspools are approaching overflowing, Smithfield, like others in the industry, spray the liquefied manure onto fields. Or sometimes they simply spray it straight up into the air, a geyser of shit wafting fine fecal mists that create swirling gases capable of causing severe neurological damage. Communities living near these factory farms complain about problems with persistent nosebleeds, earaches, chronic diarrhea, and burning lungs.

If you are unconvinced to vegetarianism by virtue of the animal ethics argument, JSF’s detailed and often viscerally revolting depictions of the resulting environmental and human health problems should be enough to send you running to the produce section.

‘Every week,’ [journalist Scott Bronstein] reports, ‘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.’

Of course, these brutal descriptions comprise only part of his argument. In large part, the facts about the animal agriculture industry are really only there for shock value – and we should be shocked. We should be horrified – but the meat of his argument is in the animals themselves, their capacity to feel pain, our capacity to inflict pain, and the nexus point of mainstream food culture and food justice.

One of the most important aspects of this book is the fact that JSF’s reflections on eating animals are spurred by the realization that he and his wife are going to have a child. A son. His search for the truth is motivated, in large part, by the sudden and important decision he faces about whether or not to feed animals to his son. “If my wife and I raise our son as a vegetarian, he will not eat his great-grandmother’s singular dish, he will never receive that unique and most direct expression of her love…Her primal story, our family’s primal story, will have to change.” If culture factors into our decision to eat – or not to eat – animals, we must be informed about what kind of culture we choose to be a part of.

I encourage everyone to read this book. In fact, I think it should be required reading for everyone who eats meat in America. In a similar way as every high school student must study civics, learn about the importance of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Civil War, we should know how the industrial revolution has transformed our food. We should where our animal products come from, and what kind of harm is inflicted on the animals, the environment, and ourselves in the process.

I would give it five out of five stars, but that doesn’t seem to do it justice. I might beg you to read it, but I doubt that would work. All I can say is that if you are a an animal lover, if you are a kind and compassionate person, if you care about the world and the people in it, then I recommend you read this book, and consider our new relationship with these animals and the world we have built around them.