ArtsATL > Books > Review: Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals,” a vegetarian’s take on factory farms, now in paperback

Review: Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals,” a vegetarian’s take on factory farms, now in paperback

“Eating Animals”

By Jonathan Safran Foer.

First Back Bay paperback edition, 341 pages.

Every year the world slaughters 50 billion chickens. Nine billion of these are killed in the United States, under a hideous system known as “factory farming.” At these farms, barnyard animals don’t roam in the sunshine, nor is there a kindly farmer to take care of them, as in the books we read to our children. The reality of the industrial animal farm, typically a compound of gigantic, windowless, feces-mucky sheds in which tens of thousands of animals are tightly confined, is vividly and trenchantly documented in Jonathan Safran Foer’s best-selling anti-meat manifesto, “Eating Animals,” now out in paperback.

In exposing the multiple abuses of animals at factory farms, and the hazards these tremendously unhygienic, manure-filled facilities pose to public health, Foer, an acclaimed young novelist (“Everything Is Illuminated,” “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”), delves into his personal conversion to vegetarianism. He politely encourages, though by no means bullies, the reader to follow suit.

It’s a shame that, after he rips the meat industry apart in a manner that seems valiant and deserved, Foer misses the opportunity to propose political action. This passionate book, full of youthful morality, could make an excellent platform to launch a mainstream protest against factory farms, which supply almost 99 percent of America’s poultry, pork and eggs and close to 80 percent of our beef. The tray of chicken thighs or baby back ribs that you pick up at the supermarket originates here, where vast populations of chickens, turkeys, pigs and cows are treated as raw material to be processed as quickly and cheaply as possible into a commodity — meat.

As Foer describes it, the factory animal’s suffering begins with its genetics. What we eat are “genetically grotesque birds,” specifically bred into two varieties: hyper-productive egg layers or extra-meaty broilers. In the 1930s, a chicken had a natural life expectancy of 15 to 20 years. Today’s broiler super-sizes itself, growing a breast as large as my foot within the six-week life span it’s allowed before slaughter.

Experiments in chicken genetics in the mid-20th century, Foer reports, resulted in fast-growing but sickly birds with compromised immune systems and structural deformities (bones too small to support their bulky muscles). To compensate, antibiotics and sulfa drugs are routinely mixed into their feed to spur growth and prevent illness. But disease and fecal contamination are prevalent, with chickens suffering everything from pus-filled sores to respiratory ailments to internal bleeding, and nonetheless being shipped to market.

Foer’s impressive strength is his ability to describe with graphic clarity the brutal conditions of factory farms and the bloody mess created by the fast-moving machinery at slaughterhouses. At egg farms, hens are stuffed into miniscule cages stacked in tiers, one raining feces down on the other. In overlit poultry sheds, chickens are densely packed together, some scabby or bleeding, all with their beaks lopped off so they won’t peck at one another. Heaps of dead birds among the living, Foer writes, “are as desiccated and loosely gathered as small piles of dead leaves.”

Foer concentrates heavily on the poultry industry, ostensibly because it’s the largest animal agribusiness, with 99 percent of all animals killed in America being farm birds. I found myself wondering, though, about the treatment of cattle, given the past specter of mad cow disease. According to Foer, cattle are actually the best off of all American farm animals, since slightly more than 20 percent of the U.S. beef industry is still controlled by small farmers.

The atrocities of the hog industry, he reports, include the tearing out of male piglets’ testicles and the removal of tails and teeth to avoid cannibalism in overcrowded sheds. With novelistic detail, he describes gut-wrenching acts of sadism by workers armed with electric prods and lead pipes. These are not aberrations, Foer writes, but part of the inhumane culture of corporate farms and slaughterhouses. (Swine parts diagram by Nita Judd.)

The curse of the industrial farm, it appears, is its behemoth size. Since the 1980s, half a million pig farms have shut down, says Foer, and today four companies produce 60 percent of American hogs. Smithfield, which he condemns as a “depraved company,” is the largest, killing 31 million pigs a year. Such corporate giants command gargantuan facilities. The average flock size of 23 chickens in 1930, for example, has ballooned to 30,000 to 50,000 broilers jammed into one shed. Thus the pitiless control of animals by caging, drugging, debeaking and desexing. (“Free range” is a meaningless label, according to Foer, signifying nothing more than a small door at the end of a long shed opening onto a patch of dirt, usually kept shut.)

What “Eating Animals” lacks is a cohesive portrait of the corporations that control the meat industry. Nor does Foer cogently explain the relationship between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and factory farmers, which he claims is collaborative. Within the book’s diffuse, idiosyncratic structure, there are anecdotes about a few major players, but Foer fails to inform us, despite three years of research, about what the officials of these companies think. It would have been enlightening if he’d been able to elicit their views by attempting something more sophisticated than the letter he repeatedly sent to Tyson Foods, addressed “To Whom It May Concern,” requesting a tour of its facilities as a new father concerned about what to feed his child.

Foer cites Tyson’s lack of response as evidence of the meat industry’s wall of secrecy. The crucial point that corporate animal businesses barricade themselves from public scrutiny is undermined, though, by this insipid effort to reach out to them.

A certain quirkiness, teetering between amusing and silly, is Foer’s stylistic signature. One five-page section repeats the phrase “Influence / Speechlessness” like some conceptual work of art to make the point that the sum total of letters equals the staggering number of animals an average American eats over a lifetime: 21,000. Foer is a muckraker, but with a loopy sensibility. He seems to recognize that his appeal will be to new generations of vegetarians.

A chapter titled “Slices of Paradise / Pieces of Shit” discusses the catastrophic problems presented by staggering quantities of animal feces, especially on hog farms — “so much shit, so poorly managed, that it seeps into rivers, lakes, and oceans, killing wildlife and polluting air, water, and land in ways devastating to human health.” A quirky but vivid Foer statistic: American farm animals produce 87,000 pounds of manure per second. The big-picture impact, he asserts, is that livestock agriculture worldwide is the No. 1 cause of global warming.

Because of the absence of waste-treatment infrastructure, factory farms deal with this manure in a variety of dangerous ways. Foer describes how it is liquefied into massive lagoons next to animal sheds, or dumped into waterways (Smithfield spilled 20 million gallons of waste into North Carolina’s New River in 1995), or occasionally sprayed into the air in fine mists, causing health problems from asthma to diarrhea to immune-system irregularities in human populations surrounding the farms.

Perhaps the gravest threat to human health cited by Foer is the role of factory farms as breeding grounds for deadly antibiotic-resistant pathogens. This seems to result from the routine use of antibiotics in animal feed, in facilities overrun with manure containing various toxic bacteria. Foer cites government records suggesting that more than 95 percent of chickens are infected with E. coli from fecal contamination and that 70 to 90 percent are infected with potentially deadly campylobacter.

Seeking alternatives to the horrors he describes, Foer reports on his visits to a few breeders who raise small numbers of “heritage” turkeys or cows actually allowed to graze on grass. Like a pilgrim seeking wisdom, he questions his elders, but is dismayed to find that even the lucky cows at Niman Ranch, which spend idyllic days in the pasture, are de-horned and slaughtered at just 12 months old — the same as at a factory farm.

Because Foer appears more thoughtful in his judgments than the vehement People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals ideologue he quotes in one of many individual “testimonials” sprinkled through the book, he is easy for the reader to empathize with. He arrives at vegetarianism not as a militant, but as a conscientious objector to factory farms’ inhumane practices.

Inspired to seek out alternatives to factory-farmed meat, I turned to Anne Quatrano, one of Atlanta’s top restaurateurs, known for her commitment to locally produced food and as the owner of the meat market Abbatoir. Where can metro Atlantans find meat from humanely reared animals? She recommended local farmers’ markets, where one can directly question producers. She endorsed two farms, Riverview Farms and White Oak Pasture, as raising animals humanely. At her own Cartersville farm, Quatrano said, she has “several heritage turkeys free-ranging around our property, but I doubt they will get eaten — they are part of this family.”

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