Nonfiction Nagging- Eating Animals

A disclaimer of sorts is necessary for this post- Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, is a book condemning factory farming (which is how you get your meat, unless you take care to read labels and are wiling to pay extra) and promoting a vegetarian diet. If you don't want to hear it, don't continue reading. I won't have my feelings hurt and would have done the same thing a few years back. I get it. And for those that may be new readers, this isn't the norm; every so often I read a nonfiction book and report back on my findings. Today's just happens to be a bit touchy. For those that continue reading, please know I'm intending to stick to the book; I myself am not even 100% sure what I plan to do as far as my dietary choices, nor am I a qualified expert in this area.

Still there? Okay. Let's do this.

Personal Background

For both health and ethical issues I started drastically reducing the meat in my diet two or so years ago. I've never eaten seafood, eliminated pork and cut out most red meat (my issue with pigs is their incredible intelligence and genetic similarities to humans). I primarily cooked chicken, and only once or twice a week, although when I ate out on the weekends it was the norm to eat it one or two more times. For lent this year (another disclaimer: I'm not Catholic or even religious) I decided to give up all meat, and my husband, who dabbled in vegetarianism before meeting me, jumped on board. I decided that this would be a perfect time to read Jonathan Safran Foer's book Eating Animals, a text I had shied away from in the past, worried that it may guilt me into something I wasn't ready for. And now that I'm done I feel more informed, but also more conflicted.

The Animals

Foer tugs at your heartstrings early by bringing in his dog, and what we would and wouldn't do to our beloved furry friends. This of course had an impact, both of my dogs cuddled by the couch as I read about the horrible things done to animals. The book goes into great detail on how animals are slaughtered- I'll spare you the specifics, but let's just say it's wrong. Horrible things are frequently done to pigs, chickens, and cows while they're still conscious. And this is after a very short life span of mistreatment- living in crowded pens and cages with diets formulated for the sole purpose of increasing the animal's size. And don't think seafood is exempt; fishing practices are also discussed, both in regards to prolonging death and wasteful catching.

Factory Farming

This image we have of our meat coming from Old McDonald's farm is pure fantasy at this point, save for a very small portion of the meat on the market. Factory farming is just that (Foer discusses it in regards to fish, beef, pork, and poultry)- a business with the sole purpose of producing as much product for as little cost as possible. Corners are cut, chemicals are used (we'll get there), and animals are often tortured (see above). The bottom line isn't our health or the well-being of the animals, it's the bottom line.

You Are What You Eat

Animals aren't just fed diets that aren't compatible with their digestive tract- they're also pumped full of antibiotics (see the post about my aversion here), water, and growth hormones. I seriously believe that the trend of teenaged girls starting to menstruate earlier is at least partially due to what's in our meat (read Ruth Ozeki's My Year of Meats for a great look at this in a novel format). The animals are left in pens without medical attention; they develop sores and infections and still end up being slaughtered for food. Most animals test positive for E. Coli and some for salmonella, while many end up going through chlorinated baths to rinse of the feces and other distasteful residue that has accumulated (especially in chickens). All that then goes into us.

The Environment

Factory farming is horrible for the environment and is a bigger threat towards global warming than cars. Between the feces, blood, transportation, and then factory waste, this style of "farming" is a huge blow to our ecosystem. Another huge issue is the fact that farm animals are fed a diet high in corn, which then leads to issues regarding the quality of the soil, not to mention that the bulk of our grain goes to animals rather than hungry people. Rivers are polluted, groundwater is contaminated, and the air surrounding the plants becomes at times toxic (people who live in the vicinity of these farms and slaughterhouses tend to have more respiratory illnesses). Most factories would rather pay the fines for their environmental infractions rather than change their ways- it's cheaper.

Eating is Social

Being a vegetarian or vegan can be difficult socially, especially if your family and friends are not. Breaking bread together is a huge part of our social structure- refusing to eat such a dietary staple changes the traditional dynamics that we are used to. No turkey on Thanksgiving? None of Grandma's pot roast for Uncle Tom's birthday? No more sushi or burgers with friends? Well, boys and girls, if your family really loves and your friends really are friends no one should care. In the beginning it can take a little time for everyone to get used to it, but then so what? Being a self-declared picky eater I'm constantly faced with the dilemma of what to do when I'm eating at someone's house and I don't necessarily like what's been cooked. You take what you like, fill up on soda or alcohol, and eat cereal when you get home! It's the conversations and the time spent together that matters.

An Agenda

As my husband pointed out, Foer obviously has an agenda- the book is quite one-sided. It is, though, backed up with the work of two fact checkers and something like fifty pages of research notes that direct you to all the original sources. And it's not like Foer is the first person to point this information out- it's been out there, most of us have just chose to ignore it. And even if only 75%, of even 50%, is completely true than that's still too much for me.

Now What?

I'm eating vegetarian for until Easter and am then going to go from there. I'm not necessarily ready to commit to a 100% meat free diet and being vegan is just not in the cards for me right now. I am, though, making some changes about where I get my food- that's the real message I took away from this book. This week I started buying those expensive brown eggs- the ones that are organic and hatched from chickens that haven't been given antibiotics (hopefully this is true; even if it is only partially it's still better than the normal ones). I'm also going to be very conscious about where I buy out poultry from in the future- I need to do some more research, but I am going to make an effort to only buy from animals that haven't been pumped full of antibiotics and hormones and have been allowed to actually walk around... on actual ground. Even more so, it's made me much more aware of how conscious I'll be about what I feed my future kids. I'm not trying to persuade anyone to become a vegetarian- I'm just advocating being more knowledgeable about the food you're putting into your body, whether it's meat, processed food, or saturated fat.

It's a start.


  1. I became vegetarian over 20 years ago. I did it after joining Weight Watchers. I am convinced it is the reason I have been able to keep off the 50 pounds that I lost. I am also convinced that it is the reason that I am very healthy and at 61 years old, I take no medication. Good for you!! It is a healthy lifestyle. All you need is a little creativity. If you'd like some suggestions on eating out veggie, just contact me. Thanks!

  2. The book sounds really thorough, which is what you'd want with a topic like this. I'm also a vegetarian, but I haven't done much reading on the topic. (I did back when I first went veg eons ago.) I might check this book out to brush up and get reinvigorated. I just don't know if I could handle some of the nitty-gritty details.*