Eating Animals

book cover of eating animals by jonathan safran foer

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer is a man’s search for answers for himself, and for his family. As an on-and-off vegetarian he wanted to know what eating meat really meant and what it meant for his newborn son.

I was interested in reading the book because I also wanted to know more of the truth. I think most of us now know something about the food industry, given the push for free-range, grass fed, organic, etc but the facts are often fuzzy. There is certainly a lot of greenwashing, spin doctors at work.

The truth can be uncomfortable, mostly because we wonder where we were the day we let it go, when we turned a blind eye, when we became complicit even without knowing. In the end, it’s not so much about what issue is at hand but what we do about it.

I am not here to convert anyone to vegetarianism. Eating is more than a primal need. It’s cultural, existential, metaphysical. How and what we eat does somewhat define who we are, not in the least that we really are what we eat. 

I myself have been a part-time vegetarian for many years, slowly excising certain meats from my diet. First it was chicken because of the hormones, then pork, and now beef. Never ate veal – I’ve always known about veal. Or foie gras. Chicken comes back in intermittently, probably because it’s not red and doesn’t remind me of actual meat, of the fact that it came from a bloodied but once breathing animal. But now I’m mostly a fish eater, and even that I’m starting to examine, after having read the book. I didn’t know I was helping to destroy the oceans by eating tuna and shrimp. Yes, I knew about the dolphins and bycatch. I just didn’t know the extent and I thought the dolphin issue was resolved, having seen little of it in the media (which of course isn’t an accurate measure of reality).

In fact I didn’t know the extent of the growth and domination of the food industry, in particular the factory farms (US anyway), until I read the book. I was never one for big business so I always tried to seek out alternatives, green choices, and real farmers. The thing about factory farms is that it’s run by corporations, not farmers  (people who know about animals and to a certain degree, cared about them). It’s now about numbers. Only numbers. No matter the cost. No matter the suffering. No matter what. This is disturbing. This isn’t what I signed up for.

Of course I, like most people, was born into our habits, never questioning things that always have been, that always were. Food was what we ate. It was served at the table. I had a loose notion that pork was from a pig, beef from a cow, drumsticks from a chicken, and chicken feet were, well, chicken feet…but I never thought about it, beyond how delicious it is (except the chicken feet which I never ate). It was. Now I can’t stomach it, given the choice.

I think most people want a “good death” for these animals. Quick. Painless, or at least without suffering. And increasingly they want a better life – cage free, grass fed, free range, etc. Is this even possible? As long as it is a for-profit industry, I don’t think so, at least not on the mass level. The sheer volume of animals that are bred, grown, killed, and processed is staggering.  With the current philosophy of profit, demand for low-cost food, and consumerism, they are just treated like commodities, not living breathing beings.

Jonathan’s research has turned up some disgusting information about the industry and the people in it.  

It’s not only how animals are raised, what they’re fed, and how they are transported. Cages stacked and stacked, of piglets, of chickens. Artificial lighting to stimulate year-round springtime so that turkey hens can lay 120 eggs a year and chicken 300. A year. The one and only year they are allowed to live. For others, it’s until they are adolescents, feeding on “solid food” which includes dried blood plasma (a by-product from slaughterhouses), foods to fatten them up, and a cocktail of drugs to keep them from the brink of death.

It’s not only the malfunctioning of machinery like the stun gun which is supposed to render all animal unconscious when killed. Because that stun gun doesn’t always work, with stories of animals regaining consciousness while being “processed”. 

It’s not only how audited visits of slaughterhouses include eye witness accounts of workers abusing and torturing animals. This is on pre-announced visits so can you imagine what happens when no one is watching? Well, no one is really watching are they?

It’s not only about how the industry gets rid of animals “without a purpose” (eg male chicks who are “layers” not “broilers”). Or the downers.

It’s not only about the detrimental effects on the environment. Pollution of the water systems. The methane. Smithfield (America’s leading pork producer), alone, produces “at least as much fecal waste as the entire human population of the states of California and Texas combined”. Wonder where all that poop goes?

There’s more. A lot more. The not so obvious.

Did you know that the turkeys you have for thanksgiving are genetic monstrosities, abominations of nature? Their genes have been so mutated (intentionally to breed for more breast meat, etc) that they can no longer reproduce naturally. And they can’t even walk properly. Never mind fly. And basically in the US, no matter the brand you buy (except those who raise heritage birds), whether it’s free-range, organic or whatever, there is only one species of chicken, when once there were dozens.  Now it’s just layers or broilers.

It’s not just chicken or turkeys. It’s also pigs, the hog industry probably the worst in many ways. Congenital deformities are not uncommon, rather they are common – hermaphroditism, no anus. Structurally unsound.

It’s not only the genes that have gone haywire. It’s also what we do to them after they are born, to ensure they live a life of pain and misery. Somehow, I’m not sure how, the industry has found that American consumers prefer the taste of castrated animals and so male pigs have their testicles simply torn out. It’s not how we neuter our pets – with anesthesia, painkillers, and after care.

All animals are slaughtered early in their lives. At least their suffering doesn’t drag on for years. This is for the taste of the meat and for “high feed conversion”.  For profit.

Factory farms are not a sustainable industry. It’s not about feeding us at all. It’s just a VERY profitable business for the corporations.

This is an industry that self-regulates which means their methods are condoned and practiced by (the increasingly few) others in the industry, making them exclusions from normal animal-welfare laws. “Free range”, “organic”, and “cage-free” are just concepts. Loopholes and a lack of enforcement are allies, bedfellows. With their vertical integration, agri-businesses control EVERYTHING!

They certainly control how most of us eat.

And we are what we eat. We have swallowed all their bullshit and now we are full of it. Have you had enough?

Update: I recently went on a detox, a wonderful 10+ days of carefree shoe-less and bra-less relaxation on the island of Koh Samui.  After a detox, the key is how we revert back to “normal” eating.  I had mostly raw food and wow the number of raw recipes available just on the internet is AMAZING.  So for those who always wanted to eat greener, cleaner, and healthier, there’s a lot of variety – not just salads! 

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