Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

“Stories about food are stories about us – our history and our values.”

When I sat down to write this review I did so with 16 pages of notes and ambitions to compose a review that would change the eating habits of every person who read it. Only such lofty goals, I felt, could do justice to a book that casts the debate around the meat industry in a fresh light.

But what I soon realised as I considered how to achieve this gargantuan feat, was that the brilliance of Eating Animals is the extraordinary realism Foer injects into the debate. His master-stroke is to get away from the all-or-nothing vegetarian versus carnivore debate in favour of a third way, a way that promotes a reduction in our collective consumption of meat to a level that is conducive to stable and lasting farming practices. This is not a fundamentalist case for vegetarianism, or a moralistic case against eating meat per se, but an exploration of why the choices we make about what we eat matter – to ourselves, the animals we do or don’t eat, the planet, and the lives of all those who inhabit it.

Those who have enjoyed either of Foer’s sublime novels – Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – will find the same inventiveness is at play here, alongside a familiar appreciation that what matters most is not facts and figures but the stories that surround them. He lets a factory farmer speak for himself, devotes an entire chapter to a debate between a farmer, his vegetarian wife, and a vegan PETA activist. He has an inherent understanding that there is no such thing as unequivocal truth, merely lots of different stories that collectively make up a whole.

Eating Animals is about the stories we tell about the food we eat. It is about their importance to our communal experiences of eating, our cultural ways of life. But it is also about the gaps between the stories we tell ourselves and the stories as they actually are. And it is about the stories we want to tell about ourselves in the future.

These stories begin with Foer himself. Having spent the first twenty-six years of his life disliking animals and oscillating between vegetarian and omnivore, between feeling guilty about eating animals and savouring the taste and smell of meat, the prospect of becoming a father made him reconsider the person he wanted to be. Taking his cue from Michael Pollan’s assertion in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that “eating industrial meat takes an almost heroic act of not knowing,” and faced with the responsibility of deciding what to feed someone more important than himself, Foer set out to understand what sort of repercussions the decision to eat meat had. But what started as a curious bit of research soon grew into a mission to expose factory farming and the culture of cheap food that drives it. He joins an animal rights activist in breaking into a factory farm under cover of darkness, and what troubles him most is not the horrific living conditions of the birds, though they are bad enough, but the secrecy, the locked doors and hi-tec surveillance.

“In the three years I will spend immersed in animal agriculture, nothing will unsettle me more than the locked doors. Nothing will better capture the whole sad business of factory farming. And nothing will more strongly convince me to write this book.”

Above all else Eating Animals is a bid to burst open that secrecy and end the whole barbaric practice of factory farming once and for all. Part investigative journalism, part scientific study, and told through a variety of literary mediums, it is difficult not to be convinced by the passion and conviction of his arguments and the panache with which he conveys them. Of all the arguments in the book it is the assertion that what we chose to eat matters that reverberates longest. He recounts a powerful conversation with his grandmother about how she survived the holocaust:

“The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.”
“He saved your life.”
“I didn’t eat it.”
“You didn’t eat it?”
“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”
“Why?”
“What do you mean why?”
“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”
“Of course.”
“But not even to save your life?”
“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

One must make choices based on our own conscience, and Foer never deviates from this central assertion. However, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t do everything in his power to shape our consciences. Much of Eating Animals makes uncomfortable reading. He tells of turkeys genetically modified to the point of being unable to reproduce sexually, to a state where there are virtually none left in America that could survive in the wild. “What we do to living turkeys,” he asserts, “is just about as bad as anything humans have ever done to any animal in the history of the world.”

He tells of the pigs slaughtered in stages, of cesspools filled with animal excrement, and the often-overlooked seafood industry’s mind-boggling war on the seas. He breaks down statistics into conceivable metaphors. At one point he asks the reader to imagine being served a plate of sushi that also holds all the animals that were killed for that one serving, concluding that “the plate might have to be five feet across.” Another chapter begins with its title – ‘Influence / Speechlessness’ – repeated roughly 840 times over five pages. Why? Because “on average, Americans eat the equivalent of 21,000 entire animals in a lifetime – one animal for every letter on the last five pages.”

Some consider this sort of approach glib and distracting, but it is this exuberance to communicate in a variety of ways that has always made Foer’s work so engaging, and it is as powerful here as ever it has been.

Not all the book is made up of tales of animal abuse, though. Far from it. Much time is devoted to the environmental degradation that results from factory farming. “Just as nothing we do has the direct potential to cause nearly as much animal suffering as eating meat, no daily choice that we make has a greater impact on the environment.” He explains how factory farming is implicated in the spread of global pandemic illnesses such as bird flu, how it produces terrifying quantities of waste which has no sewerage system through which to be disposed, and how meat is injected with so many hormones that it is strengthening the resistance of viruses to antibiotics and thereby damaging our health. His argument is that cheap meat is a false economy as factory farms do not pay for the mess they create, that they pass on all the associated costs of environmental clean-up and health-care to taxpayers without taking responsibility for either their actions or the consequences.

It would be difficult not to reach the conclusion, as he does, that industrial factory farming is a horrendous blight on our world that cannot even begin to be excused by the cheap meat it produces. While it is important to recognise that Eating Animals deals almost exclusively with the American industry and that the situation there is more extreme than in the EU, the picture he draws is reflected to a lesser or greater degree in every meat industry in the western world. It would be a travesty if the focus on the American system were taken to give readers reason to adopt the sort of arrogant superiority that so often underpins our reactions toward America. After all, the UK has some of the cheapest food prices in the world and those savings have to come from somewhere.

The problem Foer quickly encounters is that we consume too much meat – about 150 times more chicken than we did eighty years ago. And that sort of production is only possible through factory farming.

“We shouldn’t kid ourselves about the number of ethical eating options available to most of us. There isn’t enough nonfactory chicken produced in America to feed the population of Staten Island and not enough nonfactory pork to serve New York City, let alone the country. Ethical meat is a promissory note, not a reality. Any ethical-meat advocate who is serious is going to be eating a lot of vegetarian fare.”

Foer spends an inordinate amount of time searching for an ‘ethical farm,’ a farm whose meat he would be happy to feed his children. Though he finds better farms whose work is based on traditional animal husbandry and organic rearing, he still witnesses what he considers barbaric and unnecessary practices such as branding and concludes that there is no such thing as humane farming methods. This is the closest he comes to stating openly that he believes eating animals to be wrong. Yet still, he doesn’t say ‘don’t eat meat’ but rather, ‘eat less meat’. He separates his personal decision to become a committed vegetarianism from a universal demand that others follow. Because of this many hard-line vegans have criticised Eating Animals for its refusal to explicitly support universal vegetarianism. He is wise enough to know that an absolutist argument of this kind would be counter-productive. So he couches his argument in storytelling, in a journey of discovery. He pitches this book not at a distant utopian future of universal vegetarianism but a first-step incremental reduction in meat consumption for all.

Eating Animals is a rallying call to unite in opposition to the factory farming method of meat production. Yet it is typical of the book that Foer doesn’t sugar-coat this message in moral absolutism, but rather a return to stories.

“To give up the taste of sushi or roasted chicken is a loss that extends beyond giving up a pleasurable eating experience. Changing what we eat and letting tastes fade from memory creates a kind of cultural loss, a forgetting. But perhaps this kind of forgetfulness is worth accepting – even worth cultivating (forgetting, too, can be cultivated). To remember animals and my concern for their wellbeing, I may need to lose certain tastes and find other handles for the memories that they once helped me carry.”

As a reviewer I am guilty of describing books as ‘must read’ far more often than is strictly true. Indeed, it is arguable whether any fiction is ever must-read. However, if there is ever a book that warrants the moniker then it is Eating Animals or another book on the ethical and practical questions raised by the food we eat. Aside sleep and death, there is nothing that can be said to unite the entire global population as eating does. What we eat, and the impact it has on the lives we live and the world around us, is a fundamental question of our existence.

Eating Animals ends with its author hosting a meat-free Thanksgiving for family and the acceptance that they will need to develop new stories for this new diet. But, he contends, that is a small price to pay for not living with the shame of supporting such a profoundly abhorrent meat production system. During the course of his journey he repeatedly returns to an emblematic story about Franz Kafka staring into a fish tank and, on seeing his own reflection mingling with the animals he once ate, saying “Now at least I can look at you in peace.”

Life is about recognising the person you are and the person you want to be. It is about making decisions based on knowledge rather than routine. Without ever being overly preachy, Eating Animals asks us all to stare into a fish tank, to see ourselves reflected, and to decide what stories we wish to tell in the future.

Eating Animals is published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton, March 2010. ISBN: 9780241143933. 352pp

“Stories about food are stories about us – our history and our values.”

When I sat down to write this review I did so with 16 pages of notes and ambitions to compose a review that would change the eating habits of every person who read it. Only such lofty goals, I felt, could do justice to a book that casts the debate around the meat industry in a fresh light.

But what I soon realised as I considered how to achieve this gargantuan feat, was that the brilliance of Eating Animals is the extraordinary realism Foer injects into the debate. His master-stroke is to get away from the all-or-nothing vegetarian versus carnivore debate in favour of a third way, a way that promotes a reduction in our collective consumption of meat to a level that is conducive to stable and lasting farming practices. This is not a fundamentalist case for vegetarianism, or a moralistic case against eating meat per se, but an exploration of why the choices we make about what we eat matter – to ourselves, the animals we do or don’t eat, the planet, and the lives of all those who inhabit it.

Those who have enjoyed either of Foer’s sublime novels – Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – will find the same inventiveness is at play here, alongside a familiar appreciation that what matters most is not facts and figures but the stories that surround them. He lets a factory farmer speak for himself, devotes an entire chapter to a debate between a farmer, his vegetarian wife, and a vegan PETA activist. He has an inherent understanding that there is no such thing as unequivocal truth, merely lots of different stories that collectively make up a whole.

Eating Animals is about the stories we tell about the food we eat. It is about their importance to our communal experiences of eating, our cultural ways of life. But it is also about the gaps between the stories we tell ourselves and the stories as they actually are. And it is about the stories we want to tell about ourselves in the future.

These stories begin with Foer himself. Having spent the first twenty-six years of his life disliking animals and oscillating between vegetarian and omnivore, between feeling guilty about eating animals and savouring the taste and smell of meat, the prospect of becoming a father made him reconsider the person he wanted to be. Taking his cue from Michael Pollan’s assertion in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that “eating industrial meat takes an almost heroic act of not knowing,” and faced with the responsibility of deciding what to feed someone more important than himself, Foer set out to understand what sort of repercussions the decision to eat meat had. But what started as a curious bit of research soon grew into a mission to expose factory farming and the culture of cheap food that drives it. He joins an animal rights activist in breaking into a factory farm under cover of darkness, and what troubles him most is not the horrific living conditions of the birds, though they are bad enough, but the secrecy, the locked doors and hi-tec surveillance.

“In the three years I will spend immersed in animal agriculture, nothing will unsettle me more than the locked doors. Nothing will better capture the whole sad business of factory farming. And nothing will more strongly convince me to write this book.”

Above all else Eating Animals is a bid to burst open that secrecy and end the whole barbaric practice of factory farming once and for all. Part investigative journalism, part scientific study, and told through a variety of literary mediums, it is difficult not to be convinced by the passion and conviction of his arguments and the panache with which he conveys them. Of all the arguments in the book it is the assertion that what we chose to eat matters that reverberates longest. He recounts a powerful conversation with his grandmother about how she survived the holocaust:

“The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.”

“He saved your life.”

“I didn’t eat it.”

“You didn’t eat it?”

“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean why?”

“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”

“Of course.”

“But not even to save your life?”

“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

One must make choices based on our own conscience, and Foer never deviates from this central assertion. However, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t do everything in his power to shape our consciences. Much of Eating Animals makes uncomfortable reading. He tells of turkeys genetically modified to the point of being unable to reproduce sexually, to a state where there are virtually none left in America that could survive in the wild. “What we do to living turkeys,” he asserts, “is just about as bad as anything humans have ever done to any animal in the history of the world.”

He tells of the pigs slaughtered in stages, of cesspools filled with animal excrement, and the often-overlooked seafood industry’s mind-boggling war on the seas. He breaks down statistics into conceivable metaphors. At one point he asks the reader to imagine being served a plate of sushi that also holds all the animals that were killed for that one serving, concluding that “the plate might have to be five feet across.” Another chapter begins with its title – ‘Influence / Speechlessness’ – repeated roughly 840 times over five pages. Why? Because “on average, Americans eat the equivalent of 21,000 entire animals in a lifetime – one animal for every letter on the last five pages.”

Some consider this sort of approach glib and distracting, but it is this exuberance to communicate in a variety of ways that has always made Foer’s work so engaging, and it is as powerful here as ever it has been.

Not all the book is made up of tales of animal abuse, though. Far from it. Much time is devoted to the environmental degradation that results from factory farming. “Just as nothing we do has the direct potential to cause nearly as much animal suffering as eating meat, no daily choice that we make has a greater impact on the environment.” He explains how factory farming is implicated in the spread of global pandemic illnesses such as bird flu, how it produces terrifying quantities of waste which has no sewerage system through which to be disposed, and how meat is injected with so many hormones that it is strengthening the resistance of viruses to antibiotics and thereby damaging our health. His argument is that cheap meat is a false economy as factory farms do not pay for the mess they create, that they pass on all the associated costs of environmental clean-up and health-care to taxpayers without taking responsibility for either their actions or the consequences.

It would be difficult not to reach the conclusion, as he does, that industrial factory farming is a horrendous blight on our world that cannot even begin to be excused by the cheap meat it produces. While it is important to recognise that Eating Animals deals almost exclusively with the American industry and that the situation there is more extreme than in the EU, the picture he draws is reflected to a lesser or greater degree in every meat industry in the western world. It would be a travesty if the focus on the American system were taken to give readers reason to adopt the sort of arrogant superiority that so often underpins our reactions toward America. After all, the UK has some of the cheapest food prices in the world and those savings have to come from somewhere.

The problem Foer quickly encounters is that we consume too much meat – about 150 times more chicken than we did eighty years ago. And that sort of production is only possible through factory farming.

“We shouldn’t kid ourselves about the number of ethical eating options available to most of us. There isn’t enough nonfactory chicken produced in America to feed the population of Staten Island and not enough nonfactory pork to serve New York City, let alone the country. Ethical meat is a promissory note, not a reality. Any ethical-meat advocate who is serious is going to be eating a lot of vegetarian fare.”

Foer spends an inordinate amount of time searching for an ‘ethical farm,’ a farm whose meat he would be happy to feed his children. Though he finds better farms whose work is based on traditional animal husbandry and organic rearing, he still witnesses what he considers barbaric and unnecessary practices such as branding and concludes that there is no such thing as humane farming methods. This is the closest he comes to stating openly that he believes eating animals to be wrong. Yet still, he doesn’t say ‘don’t eat meat’ but rather, ‘eat less meat’. He separates his personal decision to become a committed vegetarianism from a universal demand that others follow. Because of this many hard-line vegans have criticised Eating Animals for its refusal to explicitly support universal vegetarianism. He is wise enough to know that an absolutist argument of this kind would be counter-productive. So he couches his argument in storytelling, in a journey of discovery. He pitches this book not at a distant utopian future of universal vegetarianism but a first-step incremental reduction in meat consumption for all

Eating Animals is a rallying call to unite in opposition to the factory farming method of meat production. Yet it is typical of the book that Foer doesn’t sugar-coat this message in moral absolutism, but rather a return to stories.

“To give up the taste of sushi or roasted chicken is a loss that extends beyond giving up a pleasurable eating experience. Changing what we eat and letting tastes fade from memory creates a kind of cultural loss, a forgetting. But perhaps this kind of forgetfulness is worth accepting – even worth cultivating (forgetting, too, can be cultivated). To remember animals and my concern for their wellbeing, I may need to lose certain tastes and find other handles for the memories that they once helped me carry.”

As a reviewer I am guilty of describing books as ‘must read’ far more often than is strictly true. Indeed, it is arguable whether any fiction is ever must-read. However, if there is ever a book that warrants the moniker then it is Eating Animals or another book on the ethical and practical questions raised by the food we eat. Aside sleep and death, there is nothing that can be said to unite the entire global population as eating does. What we eat, and the impact it has on the lives we live and the world around us, is a fundamental question of our existence.

Eating Animals ends with its author hosting a meat-free Thanksgiving for family and the acceptance that they will need to develop new stories for this new diet. But, he contends, that is a small price to pay for not living with the shame of supporting such a profoundly abhorrent meat production system. During the course of his journey he repeatedly returns to an emblematic story about Franz Kafka staring into a fish tank and, on seeing his own reflection mingling with the animals he once ate, saying “Now at least I can look at you in peace.”

Life is about recognising the person you are and the person you want to be. It is about making decisions based on knowledge rather than routine. Without ever being overly preachy, Eating Animals asks us all to stare into a fish tank, to see ourselves reflected, and to decide what stories we wish to tell in the future.

10 comments on “Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

  1. Nikki
    March 5, 2010

    I first heard of this book when I was watching The Review Show the other week, but I didn’t get to see it all. I’m really interested in reading this as I think there’s a lot to be said for reducing your meat intake. I mean, I probably only eat meat twice a week and I’m quite happy to have a main meal without it. It’s funny how some people seem to think that if there’s no meat it’s not a meal. Anyone who has seen Come Dine With Me when the host is a vegetarian will know what I mean! Great review, Sam, and one I’d been looking forward to. If I wanted to read the book before, now I’m desperate!

  2. Sam Ruddock
    March 5, 2010

    Hi Nikki. I’m glad you are going to read this book because I think it is fantastic! (Could you tell!) I love Foer’s prose style anyway, so I probably came into it intending to like whatever he said, but the argument here is so compelling that it is difficult not to be convinced.

    I also agree with your comments about meat eating (and definitely recognise the Come Dine With Me reference!). I promised I wouldn’t write a review that told people to be vegetarian so cut a passage at the last minute. But my personal opinion is that taking another animal’s life is unnecessary and unpalatable (for me) and that what is wonderful about humans is that we can make decisions about what we choose to do based on the sort of person we would like to be and world we would like to live in. I think this is an opinion JSF would sign up to as well.

    But, like Foer, I don’t think everyone should share my viewpoint and respect whatever decision individuals choose to make regarding meat.

  3. Jackie
    March 5, 2010

    An excellent review of a powerful, thought provoking book. I’m way too wimpy to read it, but it sounds like a more realistic, less rigid examination of a topic that in some senses shouldn’t be controversial. The author’s conversation with his grandmother had quite an impact.
    I’m glad that other countries do not have the factory farms as the U.S. does. What makes them more insidious is the denial, all those products are still marketed with pastoral scenes of barnyards & family farms, yet less than 1% of Americans are farmers. I don’t think most Americans know where their food actually comes from, before it’s handed out a drive-through window of a fast food restaurant.

  4. Sam Ruddock
    March 6, 2010

    Your comments about the divorce between the ‘old macdonald had a farm’ view of farming and the factory reality is at the heart of everything Eating Animals is about, Jackie. You’ve hit the nail on the head.

    We definitely do have factory farms, and they are just as bad. But for all people complain about it, the EU has a system of quite rigorous standards for all sorts of things from food labelling to clean air that make it impossible for big factory farms to behave as they would probably like to.

    On the other hand, I talked to Megan about this and she said a lot of the differences stem from historico-cultural imperatives such as the mistrust of watchdog organisations as a perversion of the First Amendment. Which, I guess, makes sense. Though it seems that a lot of very bad things have resulted from an over-obsession with that one concept.

    And honestly, I don’t think there is much worse in the entire world than factory farming.

  5. RosyB
    March 14, 2010

    Fascinating review. I’d be interested to know how the book deals with the dairy industry – which both depends on killing to exist and – according to many people I talk to – is one of the most disturbing in terms of continual pregnancies, continual births (and killing of the resultant calves) and continual milking.. It’s always been a discomfort to me that vegetarianism takes a moral high-ground and yet can depend MORE on cheese and other dairy products (show me a veggie option in a restaurant that isn’t smothered in cheese?)

    Living with a vegan, I know how hard it is to find any product without something in – usually skimmed milk powder. It is infuriating but also demonstrates how bound up the food industry is with itself. It can be hard to unravel the products.

    The other point I wanted to make was what you said about disease. Haven’t some of the big outbreaks like foot and mouth in the UK thought to have been from small farms and not the big factory farms in fact? (Am I wrong about this?) I absolutely loathe and detest the idea of factory farming but I think it can be easy to romanticise the little country farm…whereas bad conditions and treatments may easily arise if you have lots and lots of poor small farms – for that matter – and it could be harder to monitor…This all has to be taken into account.

    I am not a vegan – despite living with one. I would like to change what I eat, but in doing so my tendency is to reduce consumption of factory farmed stuff and move towards more gamey type stuff. My biggest battle is with dairy. For me, the way we treat animals and the conditions they are in is very important and meat-free eating does not necessarily improve that (dairy and eggs being some of the most contentious areas) and some apparently meat-free products are the result of huge amounts of killing that would not be done otherwise (dairy) .

    I suppose this is why I think facts actually ARE more important than stories when it comes to issues like this and I think the society we want to create is also more important than just the “story” we have of ourself as an individual. If we really want to improve conditions for animals and make sure we have good safe food, we have to take a long hard long at ourselves and at the food industry properly and really demand better conditions for animals altogether. Rather than just going with a gut discomfort about the actual thing on our plate.

  6. Sam Ruddock
    March 14, 2010

    Hi Rosy, I think you make some very valid points, particularly in relation to the dairy industry. It really frustrates me that things like Quorn are made with egg and that dairy finds its way into so many things. Dairy is one of the major ommissions in this book, and the one that loses support from many vegans. JSF has said that he had a chapter on dairy in there but that he cut it as it broke the narrative flow of the book. He is a novelist in everything he does – including, it seems, non-fiction. But to me that is excusable. A book can’t be everything and what is contained within is a convincing argument against factory farming, rather than an argument for vegan lifestyle.

    Yet I disagree with the notion that there is hypocricy at the heart of vegetarianism. Yes, the production of dairy and other animal products lead to some barbaric practices and can cause great suffering. It is one of the many reasoins I have a problem with fundamentalist vegetarians (though most of this kind are vegan). And restaurant options are very dependent on cheese and cream. But, like you said, and like this book is about. It is not an either or debate and we can all take strides to improving the condition of farmed animals by reducing our meat consuption, reducing our dairy consumption, and avoiding products that contain things like gelatine and rennet and other animal byproducts that find their way into so many things unneccesarily. And if we can become vegan then all the better, but not wanting to do so should not prevent anyone from doing what they can. That, I think, is the point of this book.

    I would like to be vegan but currently am not. I would like to think I will get there eventually, and Megan and I are hoping to instigate a one or two days a week vegan policy in our household. I am not yet the person I want to be, but I hope I am moving that way.

    Finally I think facts are important as they are part of the story and they can shape the stories we tell. But I think that in order to know the society we want to create we need to invisage it in a story. Facts are incredibly easy to ignore, numbers are impersonal and difficult to assimilate. They is a large body of evidence that sha[ing the thoughts of children through picture books is effective. if you go to somewhere like China or the US and read the picture books in book shops it is clear that the political and social attitudes are dramatically different. And I think this carries over into other areas too., People listen to stories, they listen to imagined scenarios and assimilate them in subtle osmosis-like ways. Facts can be rejected out of hand. Human stories get under the skin.

    The big problem at the moment is that the stories are about small farms and our communal consciousness doesn’t imagine the large factory farms. For lifestyles to change, I think this is a major hurdle to surmount.

    Finally, r.e. disease. I think you make a good point and I don’t have an answer for you. Foot and Mouth may well have started in places with lower biosecurity. I think the argument of JSF is that the genetic mutations and practice of pumping animals full of hormones and chemicals in order to maxinmise their production has led to a dangerous strengthening of virus and bacterial diseases. But I’m not certain on this. I’ll do some more reading and get back to you soon.

  7. RosyB
    March 14, 2010

    Thanks Sam for such a detailed response.

    “Yet I disagree with the notion that there is hypocricy at the heart of vegetarianism. Yes, the production of dairy and other animal products lead to some barbaric practices and can cause great suffering.”

    It’s not so much the hypocrisy – I really think that a lot of vegetarians are actually unaware that their (usually) greater consumption of dairy is supporting a very killing-based industry. It is like when people in the UK campaigned against veal without seeming to realise that those calves are a byproduct of the dairy industry and that they are going to be killed anyway.

    I also think that I meet many vegetarians who do not particularly think about it at all beyond a simplistic “don’t eat animals” kind of way. And you have to admit that the title of the book is about eating animals. Perhaps he cut that dairy chapter because it wasn’t convenient…(????)

    I think a book that talked of factory farming without looking at eggs and dairy would infuriate me, to be honest. And I would find it disingenuous.

    I have great respect for anyone who can pull off being vegan. I also have a lot of respect for people who try their best to eat meat that has been treated well and where the animals are raised in better conditions. I also have respect for those who just try to be more aware.

    But it’s a tough problem. You simply can’t eat game and carefully reared free-range organic meat livng in some areas – nor can you visit the much-vaunted farmers’ markets for that matter. I lived in a very socially disadvantaged areas and the range of products accessible in the shops was very limited indeed. Plus the huge prices on those specialist products mentioned make it a problem.

    I also have respect for those trying to improve animal welfare in existing farming and trying to move towards better treatment for the future.

    I seem to remember hearing something on the radio once about an organisation that was about improving conditiions for livestock in travel and slaughter methods and making sure they were treated humanely (I thought it was called the humane killing soc (hmmm – maybe that would have been a weird title, eh?) but googling just now it looks like it might be the humane slaughter society) – which I remember hearing about on the radio saying that they found it difficult to get support because people don’t like the idea of killing. I would rather people opened their eyes and were honest and did what they did in a better way rather than having eyes open in one direction and eyes shut in another. This is why the dairy argument bothers me – because people say no to killing…and don’t realise that killing is the basis of that industry. And because they don’t realise (eyes shut) we don’t do anything about it. It’s only if we see it (apparently) that we care.

    Eyes open and eyes shut.

  8. Lisa
    March 16, 2010

    I thought this was a really terrific review, Sam. My partner also read the piece and is now very keen to read the book. Thanks for such an in-depth and thoughtful piece, which can’t have been easy to write.

  9. Sam Ruddock
    March 17, 2010

    I think you are right, Rosy. The title of this book says it all. It is about the direct consumption of flesh rather than the associated results of animal products in general. I think it was very clearly pitched as this in order to be as accessible to as many people as possible. Convenience would be a byproduct of this, but I do think the primary concern was maximising efficacy and creating as much of a small scale change as possible without alienating too many. Eating Animals is in no means meant to be a book for experts on the subject, but an entry-level book about why what we eat matters, and a clear expose of the industrial meat industry.

    However, while I agree that some vegetarians are unaware of the killing inherent in the dairy industry, I don’t really see a problem with those who have a very visceral reaction to eating meat and don’t take their thinking any further. Indeed, I think that all the intellectualising that goes on to support vegetarianism/veganism sometimes clouds what, to me, is a very personal moral reaction: having dominion over another creature of any sort for any reason which is detremental to their wellbeing (note, I don’t think pets fall into this catagory) is abhorrent and I want no part in it. It’s like something like nuclear weapons, or capital punishment. Something I feel very uncomfortable with.

    Though I am aware that as a non-vegan I’ve just morally criticised myself too, which is a good thing in a way. This is the first book I have fully read about food and meat so I am on a steep learning curve and it is only in the past couple of months that I’ve started to think clearly about becoming vegan. I was probably one of those vegetarians who found it very easy to morally excuse their consumption of dairy without giving it much thought (I do think most are aware, but they can ignore very easily, just as most meat eaters are aware of the results of their actions but can easily not think about it).

    Clearly this is an unfortunate situation, and certainly this book could not be accused of utopianism. It could definitely go further should it wish to. But there are other books to do this. As a clear, well written and engaging introduction to the subject it is fantastic. There are aspects that will interest almost all who read it. But those, like you, who are already conversant with the subject may well find the gaps frustrating. I would say, though, that for the absense of analysis of the egg and dairy industry is an exceptionally strident section of the fishin industry, which is another often overlooked area. Indeed, the fish section is probably the best of all, and certainly the more unequivocal.

    Eyes open, and eyes shut. This isn’t a perfect book, but it is clearly about opening eyes and raising awareness.

    What I most agree with is your assertion of respect for those who do the best they feel compelled to do, and are willing to think about the origins o f their food. I really do think this is all we can ask of anyone, and the UK does have a far stronger free range, small farm sector than the States which makes it easier to be an ethical meat eater. JSF spends a lot of tiem talking to those who are trying to work within the industry to improve animal welfare (including a vegan slaughter house designer and a vegetarian farmers wife) and searching for an ethical form of meat eating. However, his conclusion is, from his point of view, that this is not possible. Not while unnecessary practices such as branding go on, or castration without anaesthetic. It’s not a cut and dry argument by any means, and I do think ethical meat eating is much better than blind consumption. But I also don’t think ethical meat eating should be seen as carte blanche.

  10. Sam Ruddock
    March 17, 2010

    Thanks for your lovely comments, Lisa. I hope your partner gets something from this book, and would love to hear their thoughts.

    This was actually an easy review to write as there is so much to be said. But it was perhaps a difficult review to edit. I had to censor myself quite strictly in order to remove any moral prosthelytizing. Which is good training as I’m not usualy very good at identifying a tone and sticking to it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

Archive

Editorial Policy

The views expressed in the articles and reviews on Vulpes Libris are those of the authors, and not of Vulpes Libris itself.

Quoting from Vulpes Libris

You are very welcome to quote up to 100 words from any article posted on Vulpes Libris - as long as you quote accurately, give us due credit and link back to the original post. If you would like to quote MORE than 100 words, please ask us first via the email address in the Contact details.

Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
  • Follow

    Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

    Join 809 other followers

    %d bloggers like this: