Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Eating Animals
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here’s what I don’t understand: why was Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma all over the place but I never even heard of this one until I accidentally saw it in the cookbook section of my library? It could be because I don’t keep up with The New Yorker‘s book reviews, because they apparently loved it. But there was a period of time when I couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing Michael Pollan’s voice, and yet Eating Animals didn’t even show up on my radar.

Maybe it’s because Pollan’s message is more palatable. He tells us that it’s okay to eat meat as long as we make ethical choices around how we eat it. Safran Foer offers no such comfort.

For seven years, I was a lacto-ovo vegetarian who occasionally ate fish. I began to eat poultry when I became pregnant with my daughter and found my bread-and-cheese diet insufficient to meet my nutritional needs. Several months after I gave birth, I was about to go back to a vegetarian diet when I discovered that my daughter and I both had food sensitivities that ruled out so many foods in our diet that I couldn’t bring myself to eliminate meat as well. At that time, I ate only poultry, fish, and vegetables, but when I became pregnant with my son, my cravings for red meat became overwhelming, and I began eating beef as well.

When purchasing meat, I always tried to buy from ethical, non-factory sources. I bought local grass-fed beef, local pastured pork, and local eggs from “galavanting chickens,” as the labels on the egg cartons said. I knew the farmers personally, picking up pork and beef from the farmer and his family when the meat CSA shares came in, and passing the time with the poultry farmer when she dropped off eggs every week for me to sell from my porch. I got my Thanksgiving turkeys from my egg supplier, which brought awareness to the difficulties of finding slaughterhouses for small farmers. I carried a Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch card in my wallet to help me make sustainable seafood choices.

But when preferred sources weren’t available—like when the farmer’s heirloom turkeys were all preemptively slaughtered by raccoons a few weeks before Thanksgiving—rather than go without meat, I would buy from the most ethical source available, even if that source wasn’t ethical at all (i.e., was a factory farm). After we moved cross-country, I was unable to find small, local farmers to supply our meat, so I just bought it from the grocery store (Whole Foods, mostly, but a national chain grocery store nonetheless).

I was already swinging back towards a more vegetarian diet before I read Safran Foer’s book (the result of talking with an ethical-vegan friend while engaged in an eight-week meditation program which had reawakened my desire to consume foods from less violent sources), but I think Eating Animals has pushed me over the edge into—*shudder*—veganism.

Safran Foer tackles the ethics of eating animals from many different angles. He points out the environmental costs (e.g., polluted water sources) and human health costs (e.g., antibiotic resistance) of factory farming, along with the workers’ rights violations endemic in the industry, its calculated contribution to the demise of the family farm, and, of course, the extreme and widespread animal cruelty.

I admit: sometimes he almost pushed me too far on the animal cruelty side of things. There’s a point at which I’m reading yet another account of cruelty—cattle hung by their back legs and skinned while still conscious, male chicks of egg-laying hens being funneled into what is essentially a wood chipper because they are unnecessary byproducts of the egg-laying process—that I say, “Enough.” There is a point at which, instead of becoming too much to ignore, the cruelty becomes too much to pay attention to. I wanted to put the book down and go eat some bacon. And when he drew back the curtain on egg production and commercial fishing techniques, I had a moment of fear as I wondered what on earth I was going to eat.

But luckily this wasn’t the whole of the book. His starting place is with facts, but he argues that the decision of what to eat is one based in relationships, culture, and compassion. This resonates with me because it’s not denial of the facts that keeps me from eating a plant-based diet, it’s fear of alienation from the people I care about. Safran Foer spoke to the social discomforts of choosing to eat differently than the mainstream. The section on what to have for Thanksgiving dinner was particularly poignant to me, as Thanksgiving was a sticking point for me every one of my seven years of vegetarianism. Saying, “no, thanks,” to a serving of turkey was saying, “no, thanks,” to a shared experience, a tradition of culture and family that draws loved ones together. To refuse to take part is to refuse to be a part. Safran Foer offers a different take on this, suggesting that hosting a vegetarian Thanksgiving can be the opener for discussions about compassion and can actually help us to be even more aware of the purpose of the holiday. I found this comforting until I imagined telling my kids we wouldn’t be having turkey for Thanksgiving. They’re not that old (only seven and three), but that tradition is already ingrained in them. A vegetarian Thanksgiving wouldn’t be popular with them, but it wouldn’t fly at all with most of our other relatives (but then, we’ve not shared a Thanksgiving with our extended family for eons, so this probably won’t be a very big problem).

Safran Foer recognizes the discomfort of talking about one’s food choices at the same time that he asserts the importance of doing just that. In the midst of reading this book, some friends offered me spring rolls with shrimp in them. All I could think was “26 pounds of bycatch for every one pound of shrimp,” a stat that had shocked me from the book. I asked myself two questions: do I eat the shrimp? and, if not, do I tell them why I won’t? I couldn’t bring myself to eat the shrimp, but neither could I bring myself to say the reason out loud. “No thank you,” I said. “I ate before I left my house.”

The personal reflections Safran Foer offers hit much closer to home than those in most of the books on American food production that I’ve read (The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation are the titles that are most prominent in my memory). The other food book that struck me so personally was Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which is where I first learned that commercial turkeys are unable to reproduce without human assistance. The similarity between these two books is that they were both written by novelists, people who make a living conveying and eliciting emotion via the written word. It’s not surprising that their books had this effect on me, but it was still rather delightful anyway. I felt understood, which is always nice when standing on the brink of a socially awkward lifestyle change.

So, now that Safran Foer has practically guaranteed that my father-in-law is going to make fun of me next time we eat together and raised the thorny issue of what to do about feeding my own milk-drinking, bacon-loving children, I’m not entirely sure where to go from here. I never wanted to be vegan because the majority of my experience with vegans was with the shrill, all-or-nothing ideology of the PETA-vegans on my college campus. I did not want to associate myself with that level of fanaticism, nor did I want to make every social outing that involved food into a rant about animal cruelty. I have enough trouble with social interactions as it is. But, as Safran Foer writes about his own food journey, now that I know, I don’t think I can go back to the way I ate before without some heroic act of self-deception.

In Eating Animals, Safran Foer recognizes the strong emotions surrounding food choices and the defensiveness with which people respond when confronted with someone who chooses to eat differently than they do, but he stops short of telling us how to bridge the gap and maintain connection from our perch atop the moral high ground. With any luck, he’ll write a follow-up book that focuses on how to be an ethical vegan and still nurture one’s relationships.

In the meantime, I’ll keep eating before I leave my house.

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14 comments

  1. Organizational Specialist · March 2, 2013

    I really enjoyed Kingsolver’s perspective on food more than any others because for some reason I felt she had a very positive outlook. And maybe including the whole family in the process made it more pleasant. I was also inspired to do something locally by buying local produce or not buying imported products, not just changing the way I ate. Thanks for the reviews!

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  2. Pingback: Bookends: February 2013 | Imperfect Happiness
  3. Melanie R. Meadors · February 12, 2013

    I’m afraid you’re right about Foer vs. Pollan. People like to hear…I’m trying to word this in a way that makes sense. The “cushy” truth. Go too far and they feel like you are attacking them. Unfortunately, when you sugar coat things, no real change happens. Well, also unfortunately, when people refuse to hear the truth, no real change happens either. The other thing, too, is that the world is so weird. We have politicians telling us that to eat healthy and to be compassionate will be the downfall of our economy. We have lobby groups that work with publishers and bookstores to market other books to overshadow the ones that go against their agendas. They have the money to pay for their books to be on the end caps, etc. and the display tables in the store.

    THen there is the side of things you mention, the uber-activist side of things that drives people away with its militance. I like to be informed, but shock advertising, I can do without. My son can definitely do without it.

    My family is taking small steps toward what I hope is a positive direction. Over the past two years we’ve pretty much replaced all the meat we prepare with organic. We’ve all but stopped eating red meat. We are trying hard to battle processed food, but it’s harder than it seems. I would love for us to go gluten free in the next year. I would also love to buy LOCAL organic meat as our next step. It’s hard to take baby steps when you know that something you are doing is not right, but I know if we jump in, the change will last until our next craving :(. Or the next hardship. At least this way we can adjust to change a little at a time and learn while we go along about resources.

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    • CJ · February 12, 2013

      What’s interesting is that Safran Foer points to beef as the most humane and environmentally sound meat option…which isn’t saying much when you learn about the pork and poultry industry. From Safran Foer’s perspective, obtaining sustainable, cruelty-free animal products shouldn’t be the responsibility of individual consumers. Instead it should be illegal to practice factory farming the way it’s practiced in the United States. All animal products should be raised in ways that protect the environment, the workers on the farms and in the slaughterhouses, the consumers (e.g., he points to research suggesting that H1N1 originated on a hog farm in North Carolina), and the animals themselves.

      So, while it starts with us as consumers, the industry isn’t going to change because I don’t eat factory-farmed animal products. It’s going to take industry action (and probably government intervention) to change the way food animals are raised. Safran Foer points out that, because factory farming is not sustainable, it will eventually collapse. It’s just a question of how much damage will have to occur before that change takes place. I think that those of us trying to make responsible, informed food choices are just trying to push the process along a little bit so maybe we won’t be in dire straits before factory farms finally go extinct.

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    • Debbie · February 12, 2013

      Balance Rock Farm in Berlin is a great source of local meats of all kinds.

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      • CJ · February 12, 2013

        There’s not much info on their website about how they raise and slaughter the animals. I’d want to find out more information before buying, like…Where do the animals go to be slaughtered? What are the practices of that slaughterhouse? Are cows branded? Are pigs’ tails routinely docked? Are poultry pastured or raised indoors? Do they raise heirloom varieties or commercial ones?

        The website says they don’t routinely use antibiotics or growth hormones, which is great, but I’d want to know a little more first.

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      • Debbie · February 12, 2013

        I don’t know all of those answers, but it is a small, family-owned farm that uses a local slaughterhouse. I’ve asked some questions and been satisfied with the answers, but I haven’t asked all of those. 😉 They are very friendly and open. I love their fresh chickens and NY strip steaks the best.

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      • CJ · February 12, 2013

        Good to know there’s a local place that might be a good supplier for an occasional soup chicken to placate my poor family! (They’ve put up with so many dietary changes as I’ve tried to figure out what’s up with my body. They really are very patient, but I think that if I take away their chicken AND their cheese, they might just stage a mutiny.)

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  4. Debbie · February 12, 2013

    First of all, everyone knows that Thanksgiving is about the glorious side dishes, not the dry, tasteless turkey. 😉

    As someone who eats different from the norm, I can probably say that your veganism would be easier for more people to deal with than the crazy things that my son and I have to say no to — wheat, dairy, sugar, food dyes. He’s even sensitive to certain brands of hummus, certain fruits unless they are organic, corn, and cinnamon. I usually travel with our own snacks, but in the event that we don’t, people panic about what to feed my son. I think it’s crazy that fruits and vegetables don’t come to mind, but most people think snacks come in a bag and make an artificial crunch. Definitely weirder than skipping the meat.

    I have two questions for you about veganism. The first is if you’ll eat honey. I have known vegans on both sides of the honey argument. The other is since at one time you felt veganism couldn’t meet your nutritional needs, why do you feel differently now? It is likely that being a vegan can meet the nutritional needs of some people (though I’m not sure I believe that based on my personal experience and malnourished vegans I have known), but if you felt that you needed more before, why not now? Pregnancy doesn’t change what your body needs, only what the fetus needs.

    I have read that about 1/3 of people thrive on being vegetarian, but not vegan because there are too many nutrients missing. I’m in the 2/3 camp, as my body truly needs a bit of naturally-raised animal protein daily. I’m not asking to be confrontational — I really want to know and understand more about why people choose veganism beyond the animal cruelty piece. I am big into nutrition and my own health comes before saving the food chain. 😉

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    • CJ · February 12, 2013

      Question #1: Honey. Yes, I will eat honey (except that I generally avoid it because of candida issues). I think that eating local honey promotes the kind of farming and sustainable agriculture that I support. Also, with all of the havoc we’ve wreaked on the honeybees with our pesticides and monoculture, I think it’s only fair that we give them all the help we can to bring their numbers back. Supporting a market for local honey is, in my opinion, part of this.

      Question #2: Nutritional needs. My vegetarian diet didn’t support my nutritional needs before because I was primarily eating bread and cheese. When I cut out gluten and dairy after my daughter was born, my diet became much healthier, even though I added meat to it. When I became pregnant with my son, I was eating a much healthier diet, but I don’t believe it was directly related to eating meat. Rather, the changes I’d made to my diet included adding many more vegetables to my daily diet, all but eliminating grains, and eliminating almost all simple sugars. Since my son’s birth, I’ve begun eating a diet dramatically higher in vegetables, especially leafy greens. I’ve found that my intake of dark leafy greens, along with nuts, legumes, avocados, and fruit—basically focusing on nutrient-dense foods—seems to be enough for me. Unless I start getting too heavy into grains or simple sugars, I don’t feel cravings for meat or even chocolate anymore. I have plenty of energy to exercise daily and to keep up with my kids (even though I routinely get five hours or less of sleep a night because I’m contrary and refuse to go to bed at a decent hour). This is the evidence that I’m using to support the healthfulness of my plant-based diet. I wasn’t in poor health when I was eating meat, but if I don’t need it, I’d rather avoid it if the only meat I can get is from large-farm sources. I suspect that if I became pregnant again (aside from the trouble of explaining this to my husband), I would be able to feel healthy eating the way that I do now. But then, who knows? Maybe I would need that extra protein to build another 9-pounds-plus baby and a gargantuan placenta. If that were the case, I’d seek out animal protein sources that were healthiest for me and for the environment (which is healthiest for me in the long run, anyway…there’s nothing altruistic in my decision to avoid meat).

      I have nothing against eating meat per se. What I’m trying to avoid is eating meat from animals that are raised the way that most of the animals in our country are raised. If I could find a humane, sustainable, local source of grass-fed beef or heirloom poultry (from a farm that treats their workers well and ensures that the slaughter facilities it uses do the same…the labor and human rights violations in meat-packing facilities is something I learned about when I began learning about immigration reform issues), I would eat meat, although probably not every day because those things come at a price. As Safran Foer points out in his book, there’s not nearly enough meat from non-factory sources to feed the meat habit the United States has. I’m fine being one of the people who opts out of eating meat.

      You might want to pick up the book if you’re interested in learning more. The details about the environmental impacts of factory farming were particularly eye-opening to me. The large-scale pollution of the New River by factory pork producers is appalling. No matter how much I love bacon (and man, do I love bacon) or how much I think my body needs animal protein, I just don’t want to participate in that. We as a species need clean water more than we need cheap meat.

      As far as the social discomfort, I’ve been gluten- and dairy-free for nearly seven years, and while I don’t like putting people out with my food needs, it seems easier since it’s a “health issue.” Going vegan (which for me means basically just cutting out eggs and meat (including seafood)) is a personal choice, and I’m really afraid that people will think that I’m willfully trying to be a pain in the butt. When I go to someone’s house, they want to feed me, and it is, to some degree, anti-social not to eat. I can explain that I avoid dairy because otherwise I have crippling gut pain and other side effects, and people get that. But nothing bad happens to my body when I eat chicken, so that choice is more difficult to defend.

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      • Debbie · February 12, 2013

        I agree, veggies are a huge nutrient provider and really should be at the heart of every diet.

        I still think making a life choice about what you want to eat is more respected than being weird, at least in my circles. If I said I was a vegetarian, it would be accepted. Now, it’s more like, “I can eat dairy and wheat just fine; it’s all in her head.” And the fact that I don’t give my kid any sugar is looked upon as borderline child abuse, even though many have seen his reactions when he eats even a few non-organic strawberries (sugar+pesticides=violence+rash). Sometimes just saying “Because I don’t want to,” seems easier than explaining all of our sensitivities.

        I just may pick up the book, b/c I enjoyed (well, I use that term loosely) the movie Food, Inc.

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      • CJ · February 12, 2013

        I hear you on the “no sugar = child abuse” thing. I’ve gotten a similar stunned reaction when I say my kids don’t eat trans fats, but that one’s at least getting to be a little more mainstream.

        Incidentally, there’s an alkaline smoothie recipe on Healthy Blender Recipes this week that looks interesting. No sugar, no dairy, no gluten. I’ve not tried it, but it looks good. Maybe it would work for a treat for your family, too. Here’s the link: http://healthyblenderrecipes.com/recipes/spiced_alkaline_sugar_free_vegan_pumpkin_pie_smoothie/

        Info about alkaline diets is actually a good place to look for reasons for becoming vegan beyond the animal cruelty reason. I’m not sure I 100% buy the alkalinity argument, but it’s a quite healthy diet, so at least it has that going for it.

        I think there are a lot of assumptions about vegan diets and a lot of people with a lot of axes to grind on many fronts. Really, there are so many ways to eat healthy. Our ability to be healthy eating most anything is one of the things that’s made our species so successful. If we stay away from processed junk and eat a wide variety of foods, I think we really can’t go wrong. Variations within that model are mostly a matter of preference and ideology rather than nutritional need.

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  5. Kylie · February 12, 2013

    I’ve been mostly vegan for over 20 years and I love it! It has opened my palate to so many wonderful, healthy, delicious foods from around the world. I follow a lot of vegan blogs and the dishes people come up with are amazing. There are tons of great cookbooks. I just learned about one that is all about making vegan cheeses! Delicious food wins over ‘shrill’ any day. Good luck on your adventure 🙂

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    • CJ · February 12, 2013

      Access to delicious recipes definitely helps! Back in my college days, being vegan was definitely synonymous with self-deprivation, but that’s not the case so much these days. I’m actually really enjoying converting “regular” recipes to vegan. It’s a fun challenge when I’m at home. When I’m out, though, saying I’m vegan who also doesn’t eat gluten (or sugar) is a tough one for me. I feel like I’m putting people out. But I suppose I could see myself as an ambassador for ethical eating just by bringing yummy vegan treats to potlucks and friends’ homes. I introduced my brother-in-law to green smoothies just by making them in his presence, and now he’s hitting me up for recipes, so the “silent ambassador” technique works at least part of the time.

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