What Story Should we Tell About ‘Eating Animals’?

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Eating Animals is a landmark book in the genre of contemporary animal rights literature—not because it has benefited from Jonathon Safran Foer’s fame as a novelist, or because of its celebrity endorsements, or because it’s being turned into a movie produced by Natalie Portman. The book succeeds because it so successfully balances clarity about its subject with sensitivity to its readers. The book is not a defense of vegetarianism so much as it is a story of Foer’s own reckoning with the reality of meat consumption today. This is a deeply personal book—kaleidoscopic in its vision, idiosyncratic in its approach. Although the majority of the book is investigation into the best and worst of each segment of the animal agriculture industry (i.e. poultry, pork and beef), there’s so much about this book that makes it stand out from that crowded genre. One chapter is a sardonic dictionary of the relevant terms, in the spirit of The Devil’s Dictionary. Scattered throughout, are excerpts from personal correspondence Foer had with wide ranging sources on the vices and virtues of animal agriculture. Finally, perhaps most importantly, the book opens and closes with the story of Foer’s relationship with meat and that of his family. Foer has a novelist’s interest in storytelling. By the end of chapter 2, Foer has run through his grandmother’s tragic story of nearly starving to death in WWII-era Europe, the birth of his son as the inspiration for this book, and his relationship with his dog. This is a particularly important touch that is absent from most literature on this topic. The meaning of food is very deep. We all tell ourselves stories about food in order to justify our relationship with it. Foer’s concern is making way for new stories.

The need for new stories is particularly pressing in the age of factory farming, a relatively recent phenomenon. The book investigates the practices and condemns the consequences of factory farming in unique ways. One of the problems of writing about factory farming is that it’s hard to fathom its scope because of the numbers involved. Humans are notoriously bad at putting large numbers in perspective. This is what Stalin meant when he said (perhaps apocryphally) that “one death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic.” Foer takes an unusual, post-modernist approach to this problem. One of his favorite weapons is the very long list. He first mentions that 145 species are incidentally caught and killed by tuna fishing techniques. But this doesn’t mean much until he actually lists the names of 99 of those species of aquatic life wastefully killed. He forces the reader to mentally picture each of these creatures. At a certain point you stop reading and ask yourself “how long does this list actually go?” Foer finds inventive variations on this rhetorical trick. One chapter titled “influence/speechlessness” is introduced by those words in tiny font, repeated for 5 pages straight. At last, the reader comes to a note revealing the point: “on average, Americans eat the equivalent of 21,000 entire animals in a lifetime—one for every letter on the last 5 pages” (121).

Paradoxically, one of the best ways to appreciate the very large is to make it very small. The part of the book that stands out the most to me is a seven page section called “The Life and Death of a Bird,” which traces the life of a factory farmed chicken. Most people recognize that this will not be a pleasant story, but rarely do they meditate on the details. Think of having to live your whole life on an area about the size of a piece of printer paper, surrounded by 33,000 other birds. Think of how filthy these conditions must inevitably be. Think of the deformities these chickens face because their genes have been artificially selected to maximize profits. Think of the host of ailments (quite a long list in itself) that these birds face. No story can justify this practice.

However, there are two competing visions standing in opposition to factory farming: the Michael Pollan-style “ethical meat” advocates and the vegetarian/vegan community. This book and it’s characters are often in dialogue with The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the Pollan book that started much of this conversation. The big question is, can meat be produced ethically and sustainably?

It’s left up to the reader to answer that question and to decide if the heroes of the book are those trying to raise and slaughter animals humanely or those advocating for abstention from animal products—or both. There is a strong case to be made that those people that devote their lives to developing a model to rival the factory farm are worthy of some admiration. On the other hand, Foer is clear-eyed about the many problems with this. Animal welfare standards are so laughably lax that it’s hard to identify which meat producers qualify as ethical. And, even if your meat comes from an idyllic family farm, its hard to find a slaughterhouse that passes even minimal animal rights standards. Foer even takes Pollan to task for stopping short of confrontation with the ethics of slaughter. Most frustrating is that “ethical meat” is all too often a story we tell ourselves to feel better about our eating habits. Many of the people who spin this story seem content to eat ethical meat when possible and factory farmed meat otherwise. Foer writes drily, “that’s nice. But if it is as far as our moral imaginations can stretch, then it’s hard to be optimistic about the future.” (257).

Eating Animals is, at its core, a story about family. “If this book could be decanted into a single question…it might be this: should I serve turkey at Thanksgiving?” (249). If that sounds a little too cute, Foer hastens to add that he isn’t interested only in coming to personal conclusions. In fact, this book takes its subject seriously enough to unflinchingly at the details of slaughter and factory farming. Through Foer’s own journey, we must make our own.  If the book could ask a single question of its reader, it would be “what story will you tell yourself and your loved ones about the food you consume?”

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