Eating Animals: A Carnivore’s Review


I finally finished reading Eating Animals, the new book by Jonathan Safran Foer. As I mentioned in a blog post earlier this month, it took me awhile to plod through because it’s not good bedtime reading, which is when I do most of mine. I thought watching videos such as “Meet Your Meat” about feedlot farms was bad; this is even tougher. (It’s just like they say about books and movies….the book is usually better–or worse in this case, due to the graphic descriptions.)

Since I’m a writer, I’ll cover the nuts and bolts first: Frankly, I find Safran Foer’s style difficult to follow. His language is a bit choppy. I don’t always follow his syntax–or his thoughts, for that matter. But, that’s just me.

As for content, he gives the reader a lot to digest. Maybe that’s why it took me three months to read the book. But, most impressively, he’s done his research. Safran Foer has supplied us with a ton of data about the industrialized world of feedlot farming….research we all need to know about. I admire him for taking on the challenge of interviewing people to hear their stories about maltreatment of animals. (Me, I can hardly look at road kill when I’m driving.) I guess if you want to take baby steps toward Eating Animals, try Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma first; it’ll help prepare you for the graphic depictions described by Safran Foer.

Here’s a basic synopsis of the content, which I snagged from The Huffington Post in October:

Jonathan Safran Foer spent much of his teenage and college years oscillating between omnivore and vegetarian. But on the brink of fatherhood–facing the prospect of having to make dietary choices on a child’s behalf–his casual questioning took on an urgency. His quest for answers ultimately required him to visit factory farms in the middle of the night, dissect the emotional ingredients of meals from his childhood, and probe some of his most primal instincts about right and wrong. Brilliantly synthesizing philosophy, literature, science, memoir and his own detective work, Eating Animals explores the many fictions we use to justify our eating habits–from folklore to pop culture to family traditions and national myth–and how such tales can lull us into a brutal forgetting….

That hits the nail on the head.

So why isn’t this a bedtime story? Let me provide a few excerpts from the book. (Beware: Reader discretion advised.)

A statistic (page 43)

Animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined; it is the number one cause of climate change.

On bycatch (page 49)

[The definition of bycatch: Sea creatures caught by accident.]

Take tuna. Among the other 145 species regularly killed–gratuitously–while killing tuna are: manta ray, devil ray, spotted skate, bignose shark, copper shar, Galapagos shark, sandbar shark, night shark, sand tiger shark (great) white shark, hammerhead shark, spurdog fish, Cuban dogfish, bigeye thresher, mako, blue shark, wahoo, sailfish, bonito, king mackeral….

(You get the idea.)

On downers (page 56)

[The definition of a downer: An animal that collapses from poor health and is unable to stand back up.]

When it comes to animal welfare, the absolute bare minimum, the least we could conceivably give, would seem to be euthanizing downed animals. But that costs money, and downers have no use and so earn no regard or mercy. In most of America’s fifty states it is perfectly legal (and perfectly common) to simply let downers die of exposure over days or toss them, live, into dumpsters.

On KFC suppliers (page 67)

KFC insists it is ‘committed to the well-being and humane treatment of chickens.’ How trustworthy are these words? At a slaughterhouse in West Virginia that supplies KFC, workers were documented tearing heads off live birds, spitting tobacco into their eyes, spray-painting their faces, and violently stomping on them.

On factory farm chicken slaughter methods (page 133)

The conveyor system drags the birds through an electrified water bath. This most likely paralyzes  them but doesn’t render them insensible. Other countries, including many European countries, require (legally, at least) that chickens be rendered unconscious or killed prior to bleeding and scalding. In America, where the USDA’s interpretation of the Human Methods of Slaughter Act exempts chicken slaughter, the voltage is kept low–about one-tenth the level necessary to rend the animals unconscious. After it has traveled through the bath a paralyzed bird’s eyes might still move. Sometimes the birds will have enough control of their bodies to slowly open their beaks, as though attempting to scream.

On factory farm fecal waste (pages 175 & 177)

Smithfield alone annually kills more individual hogs than the combined human populations of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose, Detroit, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Columbus, Austin, Fort Worth, and Memphis–some 31 million animals. According to conservative EPA figures, each hog produces two to four times as much shit as a person; in Smithfield’s case, the number is about 281 pounds of shit for each American citizen. That means that Smithfield–a single legal entity produces at least  as much fecal waste as the entire human population of the states of California and Texas combined.

What happens to this massive amount of massively dangerous shit? If all goes according to plan, the liquefied waste is pumped into massive ‘lagoons’ adjacent to the hog sheds. These toxic lagoons can cover as much as 120,000 square feet–as much surface area as the largest casinos in Las Vegas–and be as deep as 30 feet….For corporations like Smithfield, it is a cost-benefit analysis: paying fines for polluting is cheaper than giving up the entire factory farm system, which is what it would take to finally end the devastation.

On pregnant sows (page 183)

Four out of five times a sow will spend the sixteen weeks of her pregnancy confined in a ‘gestation crate’ so small that she will not be able to turn around. Her bone density will decrease because of the lack of movement. She will be given no bedding and often will develop quarter-sized, blackened, pus-filled sores from chafing the crate.

On slaughterhouse workers (page 231)

The combination of line speeds that have increased as much as 800 percent in the past hundred years and poorly trained workers laboring under nightmarish conditions guarantees mistakes. (Slaughterhouse workers have the highest injury rate of any job–27 percent annually–and receive low pay to kill as many as 2,050 cattle a shift.)

On factory farm cattle slaughter methods (page 233)

A slaughterhouse worker who finds a cow still alive at the skinning stage in the line explains:

A lot of times the skinner finds out an animal is still conscious when he slices the side of its head and it starts kicking wildly. If that happens, or if a cow is already kicking when it arrives at their station, the skinners shove a knife into the back of its head to cut the spinal cord.

On sadism toward pigs (page 253)

From interviews in the book Slaughterhouse by Gail Eisnitz:

Down in the blood pit they say the smell of blood makes you aggressive. And it does. You get an attitude that if that hog kicks at me, I’m going to get even. You’re already going to kill the hog, but that’s not enough. It has to suffer….You go in hard, push hard, blow the windpipe, make it drown in its own blood. Split its nose…..One time I took my knife–it’s sharp enough–and I sliced off the end of a hog’s nose, just like a piece of bologna. The hog went crazy for a few seconds. Then it just sat there looking kind of stupid. So I took a handful of salt brine and ground it into his nose….

On turkeys and antibiotics (page 266)

Today’s turkeys are natural insectivores fed a grossly unnatural diet, which can include “meat, sawdust, leather tannery by-products,” and other things whose mention, while widely documented, would probably push your belief too far. Given their vulnerability to disease, turkeys are perhaps the worst fit of any animal for the factory model. So they are given more antibiotics than any other farmed animals. Which encourages antibiotic resistance. Which makes these indispensable drugs less effective for humans. In a perfectly direct way, the turkeys on our tables are making it harder to cure human illness.

Had enough?

Unlike Safran Foer, his research hasn’t turned me into a vegetarian. While I’ve made progress at eating less meat–for a variety of reasons–I don’t plan to give it up permanently. To me, it’s within the natural order of the world to be a carnivore.

But his book has reinforced my mission to eat only grassfed meat. That means buying only from local farmers I know and trust–such as Lubbers Farm–to provide me with happy food instead of factory farmed food.

It means supplementing my meat supply when it runs low with local choices through the West Michigan Co-op–again, from people I know and trust.

It means getting creative with more vegetarian options for lunch and dinner, such as legumes. 

And it means asking the server or restaurateur about a restaurant’s meat source before I choose a meat item on their menu.

Simply put: I’ve become hyper conscious about what I choose to eat for every meal and snack.

What it all comes down to is animal welfare.

In December I published a rather philosophical blog post about an inner conflict I had while reading Eating Animals. What was really eating at me was the suffering of the animals. Safran Foer calls it animal welfare.

I personally know several of you readers who would have a hard time getting through this book (and probably this blog post) because of your love for animals. But it’s important stuff. It’s good to know what’s going on in our dysfunctional world of industrialized feedlot meat.

I challenge you to read the book, stomach the horror, and ask your meat suppliers–from grocers to farmers to restaurateurs–to pursue happy food and support animal welfare. No living thing should suffer the way this country’s pigs, turkeys, chickens, and cows suffer.

Sleep well, America.

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