With Thanksgiving less than a week away, most everyone is digging up family recipes and planning get-togethers. But before you plan your menu, you might want to think twice about putting turkey on your plate, as author Jonathan Safran Foer argues in his new book Eating Animals.
Foer, mostly known for his fiction novel Everything is illuminated, dabbled in vegetarianism in college, but it wasn’t until his wife became pregnant with their first child that he decided to dig deeper and learn about the foods we eat. Specifically, he wanted to know for himself and his family the what meat really is. Foer spent three years conducting research for Eating Animals. He talked to fishermen, slaughterhouse workers, animal rights activists, and visited factory farms as well as family run farms. Foer insists that this book is not a case for vegetarianism, he simply wanted to inform and allow people to take responsibility for what they eat. In the process of his research Foer writes, “I came face-to-face with realities that as a citizen I couldn’t ignore and as a writer I couldn’t keep to myself.”
Eating Animals is not an easy read. Especially when on page 24 Foer argues “A Case for Eating Dogs” followed by a recipe for dog stew. While I can’t even stomach the thought of eating man’s best friend, Foer actually does have a point. Why do we eat pigs but not dogs? If we are establishing our decision on which animals to eat based on intelligence, pigs would come out on top. Studies recently showed that pigs have the intellectual equivalency of a three-year-old child. They can recognize themselves in mirrors (even recognize when something is behind them in a mirror), they can learn their name in less than two weeks, come when called, fetch, run, play, and even reciprocate affection. Foer isn’t advocating that we should be eating pets from people’s homes, but he argues that three to four million dogs are euthanized annually, which often become the food that goes to feed the animals that we eventually eat. He is suggesting that we eliminate the inefficient middle step.
Foer dedicates most of his book to Factory Farming-where 99 percent of all animals eaten in this country come from. What I found most disturbing about factory farms is something called “Common Farming Exemptions” or CFE. CFE make legal any method of raising farmed animals so long as it is commonly practiced within the industry. In other words, farmers (or corporations) have the power to define cruelty. If the industry adopts a practice-hacking off unwanted appendages without anesthetic, for example-it automatically becomes legal. Although Foer describes factory farm conditions for fish-where 26 pounds of other sea animals are killed to bring in just one pound of shrimp; for pigs-where pregnant sows are kept in crates so small they cannot stand up or turn around in; for cows-where animals are bled, skinned, and dismembered while conscious, I’m going to focus this column on the factory farming of poultry as they seem to have it the worst.
There are 50 billion factory-farmed birds worldwide. In most factory farms there are tens of thousands of birds stacked in cages on top of each other as far as the eye can see. Foer describes one of the factory farms that he visited: “Because there are so many animals, it takes me several minutes before I take in just how many dead ones there are. Some are blood matted; some are covered in sores. Some seem to have been pecked at; others are as desiccated and loosely gathered as small piles of dead leaves. Some are deformed:there are few places to look without seeing at least one.”
The way Foer describes poultry slaughterhouses seem like something out of a horror book. In many other countries, it is legally required that chickens be rendered unconscious or killed prior to bleeding and scalding. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case in the United States. Here in America, the USDA’s interpretation of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act exempts chicken slaughter. According to Foer, the voltage of the electrified water bath (that a chicken passes through hung upside down by their ankles in metal shackles) is kept low-about one-tenth the level necessary to render the animals unconscious. After it has traveled through the bath, a paralyzed bird’s eyes might still move. Foer writes: “sometimes the birds will have enough control of their bodies to slowly open their beaks, as though attempting to scream.”
At a slaughterhouse in West Virginia (that supplies food for Kentucky Fried Chicken), workers were documented tearing the heads off live birds, spitting tobacco into their eyes, spray-painting their faces, and violently stomping on them. These acts were witnessed dozens of times. What was the most horrific was the fact that this slaughterhouse was not a “bad apple” but a “Supplier of the Year.”
Aside from the animal cruelty on factory farms, Foer argues in his book that these farms also contribute to environmental degradation. The United Nations summarized the environmental effects of the meat industry this way: “Raising animals for food is one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems at every scale from local to global:animal agriculture should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity.” Foer reasons that if one cares about the environment, one must care about eating animals.
If the animal cruelty and the environmental degradation from factory farms don’t concern you, then consider your health. Today’s factory farmed animals are fed a grossly unnatural diet, which according to Foer can include, meat, sawdust and leather tannery by-products. Poultry especially are given more antibiotics than any other farmed animals, which encourages antibiotic resistance, which then makes these indispensable drugs less effective for humans. Foer says: “in a perfectly direct way, the turkeys on our tables are making it harder to cure human illness.”
Foer spoke with a farmer from a family-run farm who said that people slow down when they pass his farm because they don’t understand how the turkeys got in his trees. “They flew there,” he says. But the kids don’t believe him. He says that these were the kind of turkeys that everyone had on their farms for hundreds of years and what everyone ate. But now things are different. He says: “Not a single turkey you can buy in a supermarket could walk normally, much less jump or fly. They can’t even have sex. They all have the same foolish genetics, and their bodies won’t allow for it anymore. Every turkey sold in every store and served in every restaurant was the product of artificial insemination.”
The fact is that factory farms exist because they can produce cheap meat. According to Foer, in the past 50 years, the average cost of a new house increased nearly 1,500 percent; new cars climbed more than 1,400 percent; but the price of milk is up only 350 percent, and eggs and chicken meat haven’t even doubled. Foer quoted a family-run farmer saying: “If consumers don’t want to pay the farmer to do it right, they shouldn’t eat meat.” I couldn’t agree more.
What surprised me most in Foer’s book was his explanation of “free-range” and “cage-free.” He calls them both “bullshit.” To be considered free-range, chickens raised for meat must have “access to the outdoors,” which if you take those words literally, means nothing. Foer writes: “Imagine a shed containing thirty thousand chickens, with a small door at one end that opens to a five-by-five dirt patch-and the door is closed all but occasionally.” I guess I should stop patting myself on the back for buying free-range eggs. The USDA doesn’t even have a definition of free-range for egg-laying hens. Cage-free is regulated, but means no more or less than what it says-the animals are literally not in cages, but still only have eight-tenths of a square foot of space each.
When surveyed, 96 percent of Americans say that animals deserve legal protection, 76 percent say that animal welfare is more important to them than low meat prices, and nearly two-thirds advocate passing not only laws but “strict laws” concerning the treatment of farmed animals. With all the studies on animal agriculture, pollution, toxic chemicals in factory-farmed animals, and exposes of the appalling cruelty to animals in that industry, Foer writes, “We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference. Those alive today are the generations that came to know better. We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness. We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, ‘What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?’”
When I finished reading this book, rather than feeling as though the future was dismal, I realized instead that one person can make a difference. It would be nice if we could all buy our meat from family farms, but considering that less than 1 percent of the animals killed for meat in America come from family farms, this task is all but impossible (though Foer does mention Whole Foods as a good source). But if you would truly like to make a difference, this year at Thanksgiving think about the thousands of other available dishes that you can enjoy in place of your usual turkey. As Foer says: “At the center of our Thanksgiving tables is an animal that never breathed fresh air or saw the sky until it was packed away for slaughter. At the end of our forks is an animal that was incapable of reproducing sexually. In our bellies is an animal with antibiotics in its belly.” And if you still decide to eat turkey, you should consider reading Eating Animals. At least you will know what your meat is.