Eating Animals

by Johnathan Safran Foer

Read: 12/2013


Part philosophy, part journalism, part novel, part research report, part humor — this book is complex and abstract, but in a good way. The author is refreshingly honest. For instance, he admits that he frequently lapses from being a vegetarian. He describes with specificity how animals are killed and processed. However, the author also acknowledges that nature is no picnic either: animals either starve to death or are killed by other animals. Real nature documentaries are brutal. Ultimately, the goal of the book isn't to cast judgment for or against eating animals, it isn't about killing and not killing, its about quality of life, both for ourselves and for animals.

Notes & Quotes

Why don’t we eat dogs? Pigs are smarter than dogs. Baby cows are as cute as puppies. Other cultures eat dog. Really, what is the difference between animals we eat, and animals we don’t eat?

99% of animal products in America come from factory farms.

Aquaculture (mass fishing) is just as bad as any factory farm. So that’s included in this whole thing.

“Farming” of birds and fish are the worst — both from the animals perspective and the environment. Massive bird “farms” are in reality upwards of 50,000 birds in a warehouse. The average chicken is above average in size and given only the size of a sheet of paper.

In the wild, a chicken could live up to 20 years. “Broilers”, chickens raised to be made into meat (as opposed to “layers”), are usually killed on the 42nd day, and as early as the 39th.

If anything, the slaughter of cows is the least worst practice — “which isn’t saying much” the author deadpans. Even then, cows can go through horrible torture and pain when the stun gun doesn’t work and the cow is dismembered alive.

When it comes to factory farming, there are plenty of reasons to be outraged beyond animal rights. There is shit and blood everywhere along these disassembly lines. It’s just filthy. Most meat ships with e-coli or salmonella. That’s why you have to cook it! And animals shit a lot. They literally produce lakes of shit at some of these bigger factory farms. Most the big factory farms have huge employee turnover. Most people just can’t do that work for more than a few months. Consequently, most the employees are illegal aliens willing to work in nasty conditions for minimum wage.

But on the other hand, there are 7 billion people on the planet, somebody’s gotta feed them. Factory farmers aren’t necessarily forcing people to have their product, many people really want it. The consumers are just as culpable as the farmers.

The USDA has a huge conflict of interest. On the one hand, they are supposed to promote animal products. On the other hand, they are supposed to provide nutritional information and encourage a healthy diet. The problem is: you can’t really do both…

The legal standards for the Ethical treatment of livestock (animal husbandry) is completely subjective. Ethical treatment is whatever is common practice. So if everybody is torturing animals, torturing animals is considered ethical.

Labels such as “cage-free”, “grain-fed”, and “organic” are pretty much meaningless (unless they come from trustworthy third parties). In fact, cage-free birds are often treated worse than caged birds — their beaks are cut off among other things to make sure the chickens don’t kill each other.

If you want to see how your meat is made, they won’t let you. They do not allow visitors to the slaughtering stations. They don’t even allow USDA inspectors to actually slaughter room. These farms have fences (to keep people out, not keep animals in) and the doors are locked at night. Its very much like a military secret. Jonathan wanted to see how meat was made. Nobody would let him. So he actually had to join a PETA activist on a few nights to actually break into these well-guarded farms.

There are ethical farmers out there. Notably, the Niman Farm tries to allow cattle to have an enjoyable life before they are slaughtered. Ultimately, that’s where this book becomes most philosophical. Humans and animals deserve a happy life. But, everybody dies. Its not about life or death, its about quality of life.

In a way, the real heroes in this book are ethical farmers who raise, kill, and eat animals.

Ultimately, Jonathan doesn’t argue against eating meat, he objects to factory farming. He objects hurting animals, not killing them. We are we what eat.

Jonathan makes the personal conclusion he should be vegetarian. Its not an argument or even a general conclusion, just personal. But eating meat or not really isn’t the point, its about factory farming — and the bad things that go with it. Factory Farming is problem, being a vegetarian is a result, eating less meat is another result. Jonathan is much more interested in the problem, not the result.

Oddly enough, this isn’t a controversial book — its not intended to be controversial and it doesn’t come across that way. Most reasonable people are uncomfortable with factory farming. Most choose to ignore it, but nobody likes these factory farms. Even hard-core hunters and real farmers don’t like factory farms. This book focuses on the reality of factory farming, as opposed to getting bogged down in hypothetical issues such as whether eating animals is right or wrong, do animals have souls, etc…

The author’s grandmother was in the Holocaust. She was on a long march, desperately hungry, and a Russian farmer offered her some pork. Amazingly, she refused it (not kosher). She explained, “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

Who are you? What do you stand for?