‘Eating Animals’ urges readers to stand up for their beliefs

I recently read a book called Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, and to say the least, it left a very bad taste in my mouth.  That being said, I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

I’m sure almost everyone in this country knows that we as Americans don’t particularly eat very well.  We’re not the healthiest nation in the world.  We eat lots of fast food, and our obesity rates are mind-boggling (in 2008, Colorado was the only U.S. state in which the obesity rate was less than 20 percent – that means, in the other 49 states, 1 in 5 people were obese).

But knowing these things doesn’t mean you’re well-informed, or anywhere near it.  In fact, forget about fast food for a second – have you ever given any thought to what’s in the food you buy from the grocery store?  The packaged chicken breasts, for example – surely a staple in almost every household.  Have you ever considered where that chicken came from?  Have you ever considered what it takes for an actual chickento become that food lining the aisles of the grocery store?  Jonathan Safran Foer has.

You probably don’t want to know the specifics.  You probably should want to know the specifics because you’re willingly putting it into your own body, but you probably know the truth is going to be unpleasant.  I’m only going to potentially gross you out once in this column, so let’s get it out of the way.  You might want to skip the next paragraph if you’re having chicken for dinner tonight.

After a chicken is slaughtered, a machine removes its guts, and sometimes intestines get ripped open, leaking all kinds of wonderful gunk onto what’s left of the chicken.  After a quick inspection, which usually lasts two seconds, what’s left of the chicken gets dumped into a refrigerated tank of water.  This water has a nickname – “fecal soup” (I’m sorry).  The chickens soak up this water, which adds to their weight, which means more money for less chicken.  In the 1990s, a lawsuit targeted a law that said regularly priced chicken could contain 8 percent absorbed liquid.  The law was overturned, so people looked the other way, assuming the big shots would behave.  They didn’t.  They passed a new law that turned the 8 percent into 11 percent.

This is just one of many stories Foer relates in Eating Animals.  The book is a smorgasbord of facts about food, stories about Foer’s family and his experiences researching the meat industry, which include sneaking onto a farm in the middle of the night and being repeatedly ignored by Tyson Foods when asking politely to visit any of their facilities.

Foer is a vegetarian, but his book is not really about vegetarianism, and he’s not trying to gross his readers into converting.  He’s trying to get his readers to think, and to reason, and to discover their own moral standards and then start sticking to them.  But I find it nearly impossible to believe that anyone could read Eating Animals and emerge at the end with the same set of morals that they began with.


Foer spends more time writing about morals than about health, which is unexpected, because most people would probably think that the whole idea of vegetarianism is to be healthy.  But the health-related reasons of being a vegetarian have already been talked to death.  The moral and ethical reasons, however, have been pushed off to the side.

Consider this passage from Eating Animals, taken from a letter written by an animal-rights activist who snuck into a farm in the middle of the night with Foer:

“Tell me something:  why is taste, the crudest of our senses, exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses?  If you stop and think about it, it’s crazy … how would you judge an artist who mutilated animals in a gallery because it was visually arresting?  How riveting would the sound of a tortured animal need to be to make you want to hear it that badly?  Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals.”

Ninety-nine percent of the land animals we eat as Americans – pigs, cows, chickens and turkeys mostly, including eggs and milk – come to our grocery stores from what are now known as “factory farms.”  Facts and descriptions of the inner workings of these farms occupy much of Eating Animals, and since I’ve already grossed you out with one such description, I won’t do it again.  However, here’s a quick rundown:  on factory farms, animals are raised either in cages that are too small for them to turn around in, or they’re raised “cage-free,” which often means they’re packed closer together than cages would allow.  Their genetics are modified through food and antibiotics, speeding up their growth and preparing them to be slaughtered at the youngest age possible.  Chickens that are raised for chicken breasts have been genetically modified so much that their legs are sometimes unable to hold up their bodies.  These animals are often housed in sheds with artificial light and heat with no access to the outdoors.  With chickens, this allows farmers to manipulate their internal clocks and their sense of the seasons, which means more eggs in a shorter period of time.  In other words, chickens are no longer really living the lives of chickens – they’re living the life of our food.

So what?

But the question raised by many average Americans in response to this kind of information is this: so what?  Food is important, and we have a lot of people living in this country; therefore, we need lots of food, preferably produced in the cheapest and fastest methods possible.  But – money aside – at what cost?  Are you honestly comfortable with knowing that other living creatures are abused, deprived and treated as nothing but meatfor their whole (dramatically shortened) lives, just so our food can be cheap?  One of the most telling and surprising facts that Foer presents in Eating Animals is that Americans are currently spending a smaller percentage of their overall income on food than ever before.  Despite common belief, we don’t actually need to be producing meat the way that we are currently producing it in order to keep our country well-fed.

Still, you might be thinking, there’s not a whole lot one person can do about it.  And as disappointing and discouraging as it is, that’s basically the truth.  One person is not going to convince the meat industry to completely overhaul its very profitable production system.

But that doesn’t mean you should do nothing.  Just because you can’t change the world, or the country, by making a decision to live a more conscious and moral life, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t benefit from such a decision in more subtle, personal ways.

In present-day America, making the decision not to eat meat says that you’re willing to stand up for something you find to be important.  Showing yourself and others that you’re capable of making a difficult decision in order to stand up for what you believe in would undoubtedly have a positive impact on your life.  You’d feel better about yourself, and others would look at you in a more respectful and admirable light.  They might even be encouraged to start living their own lives more in accordance with their beliefs.

Beliefs are some of the only things that can’t be taken away from you in life, and if you don’t take a stand when you encounter something that goes against your beliefs, then what’s the point of believing in anything?