Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

27/02/10, The Times

Jonathan Safran Foer has built a precociously dazzling literary career by attaching a startling, playful, often tricksy, array of fictional effects to momentous and great matters. In his debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, he wrote, in a catchily aslant manner, about the Holocaust; in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, about 9/11. His purpose is to hit the affective-moral chord in his readers and what he achieves is occasionally at the cost of blurring the critical line between the emotional and the sentimental. It is, therefore, unsurprising to see him turn his intelligent attention to the issue where this blurring is not only most conspicuous but also inflammable: the issue of carnivorousness and the fishing and meat-industry. Eating Animals – the title doesn’t pull any punches – is the result of new father Safran Foer beginning by asking a simple question: does he want his son to grow up eating meat after the knowledge of ‘what meat is’? That short question inevitably infolds several others: ‘Where does [meat] come from? How is it produced? How are animals treated, and to what extent does that matter? What are the economic, social, and environmental effects of eating animals?’

For years, Safran Foer was an omnivore, then a vegetarian ‘who from time to time ate meat’, assuming that he’d comfortably, and without too much compunction, ‘maintain a diet of conscientious inconsistency’. In this formidably researched, furious yet admirably lucid and unclouded book, Safran Foer accounts for his conversion to vegetarianism. Throughout, he demolishes logical inconsistencies, hypocrisies and untenable positions with ferocious glee. Take this, for example: ‘The choice-obsessed modern West is probably more accommodating to individuals who choose to eat differently than any culture has ever been, but ironically, the utterly unselective omnivore – “I’m easy; I’ll eat anything” – can appear more socially sensitive than the individual who tries to eat in a way that is good for society.’ Touché. There are scores of these scattered throughout the book but these are almost asides in Safran Foer’s bigger picture, which is a diptych, as it were. The first panel of this constitutes an underpinning inquiry: what explains the denial, cognitive dissonance or disconnect inherent in meat- and fish-eating, that is, knowing the hows and whys and whats of meat-production and choosing to erase, forget or subdue that knowledge in front of a plate of meat? The second, related question is: do we really know the truth about how an animal ends up as steak or chop or bacon on our plates? For the larger part, Eating Animals concentrates on the second question and the information that emerges from that query will shrivel your soul.

As a prelude to that metamorphic tour and a kind of beginners’ reference point, Safran Foer constructs a basic dictionary in the chapter ‘Words/Meaning’. There are some uncompromising definitions, each one a revelation. See ‘cruelty’: ‘not only the wilful causing of unnecessary suffering, but the indifference to it. … Cruelty depends on an understanding of cruelty, and the ability to choose against it. Or to choose to ignore it.’ Terms such as ‘bycatch’, ‘feed conversion’, ‘stress’, ‘instinct’, ‘species barrier’ (superb, this one) are deconstructed with a cold anger while the entry on KFC is a gem of a demolition job. Most of us know a little about battery hens but did you know the blood-curdling ways in which food and light deprivation are used to get birds to lay more eggs? So you think free-range is better, right? Well, read on and be educated: ‘One can reliably assume that most “free-range” (or “cage-free”) laying hens are debeaked, drugged, and cruelly slaughtered once “spent”. I could keep a flock of hens under my sink and call them free-range.’ And ‘organic’? It ‘doesn’t mean anything in terms of welfare issues. You can call your turkey organic and torture it daily.’

Part of the project of Eating Animals is to cut through the bullshit the food industry has fed people for decades, along with their (literally) toxic products, and the lies, omissions, ignorance they have disseminated. Safran Foer takes a massive wrecking ball to this concerted project of misinformation, corruption, silence, and the programme to keep people as ignorant as possible about factory farming. Myths trotted out regularly – a vegetarian diet provides sub-optimal levels of protein; factory farming is all about providing the world’s billions with affordable meat; the cost-effectiveness of industrial production of meat – are savagely picked apart in Safran Foer’s journey to his target destination: factory farming. From that clarion call – ‘We have waged war, or rather let a war be waged, against all of the animals we eat. This war is new and has a name: factory farming’ – the book becomes an indictment, a shocking illumination of what has been kept from us, sometimes with our own collusion.

A caveat here: Safran Foer concentrates exclusively on the baneful scenario in the USA, which is much worse than anything that obtains in the UK or in Europe, but let’s not get complacent: we’re not far behind in this race to the south. True, a lot of this stuff has been done elsewhere, and done with more objective rigour, such as in Peter Singer’s revolutionary Animal Liberation (oddly, not referenced anywhere in the book), or with the oblique ambiguity of great art as in J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, even Disgrace. The 2008 film, Food, Inc., by Michael Kenner, took on the American food industry along lines that Safran Foer follows here. But there can never be enough of angry exposés of the meat industry and of the many things that Safran Foer brings to the debate is a scrupulous balance: for every visit to a factory farm or to Smithfield, the largest pork packer in the USA, he also visits what are called ‘family farms’, where people still try to produce meat in less cruel, more sustainable ways, with an eye on both animal welfare and quality of meat. In the chapter ‘Hiding/Seeking’, he breaks into a poultry battery farm in California with a seasoned ‘activist’, documents the harrowing experience of chickens there, then lets three types of people speak ‘straight to the camera’: the activist, the factory farmer, and Frank Reese, a poultry farmer who is trying to do it right from the beginning to the end. In his chapter on the pork industry, ‘Slices of Paradise/Pieces of Shit’, he visits Paradise Locker Meats, a slaughterhouse in Missouri that tries to kill pigs more humanely than factory farms, then Paul Willis, a farmer who coordinates pork production for Niman Ranch, USA’s only supplier of non-factory pork, and finally focuses on how the hell-on-earth that is Smithfield deals with the faeces of the 31 million hogs that it butchers annually (281 pounds of shit for every American citizen). In the following chapter, he lets Bill Niman (of Niman Ranch), his wife, Nicolette (a vegetarian rancher), and Bruce Friedrich of PETA speak directly, creating a calibrated yet ultimately divergent set of attitudes towards animals that brings into sharp relief the difference between animal welfare and animal rights.

The sections entitled ‘The Life and Death of a Bird’, ‘Our New Sadism’ (on how pigs are treated at factory farms) and ‘The Truth about Eating Animals’ are so bleak and shocking that they will fill you with shame, horror, anger, disgust. Just one question from the whole artillery of facts that the book bristles with: did you know the real costs of cheap meat after you take into account only a few of the costs that factory farms externalise, such as environmental depredation, pandemics (swine flu virus, for example), a barrage of illnesses, all of which are passed on to the consumer to pick up? The incipient hope he holds out for a ‘wiser animal agriculture and more honourable omnivory’ becomes weaker and weaker with the narrative’s progress as it culminates in Bill Niman being driven out of his namesake company because his own board wanted ‘to do things more profitable and less ethically’. Yet his argument that the factory farm, being ‘radically unsustainable’, will one day ‘come to an end because of its absurd economics’ seems both rationally feasible and touchingly optimistic at the same time.

It is towards the end that Safran Foer reveals the gloves-off polemical side of the book and asks tough, unavoidable questions. His attitude is unflinching, as it necessarily has to be for advocacy of this kind, and if a stray note of self-regard and self-importance sounds here and there, it can be all too readily overlooked for he is clearly fighting on the side of the angels. His moral clarity is incandescent, his arguments unimpeachable. Which carnivore can answer this question he poses: ‘How easy is it to avow a responsibility to the beings most within our power and at the same time raise them only to kill them?’ And when he writes, ‘We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?’ what answer are we going to return in the private darkness of our souls?