By Jonathan Safran Foer
Little, Brown and Company; $25.99, cloth
Jonathan Safran Foer’s departure from fiction has caused quite a stir among American readers. The author of Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has chosen the meat industry as his target in his latest nonfiction work. The book is exactly what one might expect: a somewhat shrill screed decrying the eating of animals. As I was reading, I could not help but compare Foer’s work with other landmark book-length investigations of various industries: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a work of fiction that instigated the formation of the Food and Drug Administration with its expose of the secretive meat industry of the early twentieth century; Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, one of the first books to discuss our destruction of the environment; and The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford’s examination of the funeral industry.
Foer’s work was inspired by the birth of his son and his desire to feed him a healthy diet. The meat industry is still guarded, and Foer recounts his difficulty getting access to factory farms and a look at what happens there. He is forced to sneak in at night, and what he sees is revealing and disgusting. However, I do not think his revelations will be a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to our relationship with food over the last few decades here in America.
One would think a book of this nature is an argument for vegetarianism. Foer is a vegetarian, and he believes this is the only healthy choice of diet, but that is not the goal of the book. He takes on the philosophy of eating meat, specifically, the way we grow, produce, and slaughter animals for food. In scenes right out of Dante’s Inferno, Foer takes us inside the lives of these animals with the argument that such disregard for life, such abusive and violent behavior against another creature, cannot be good for human karma.
In fact, Foer makes the point that simply swearing off the eating of animals is not enough. The demand is still high. The fraction of the population that holds to vegetarianism is so small that the factory farms continue unabated. And many of the dwindling number of individual or family farms face economic ruin and sell out to the larger conglomerates. If they do survive, they are forced to contract slaughterhouses to prepare their animals for market, and the abuse happens most prevalently there. So whether or not a chicken is free-range, natural, grain-fed, et cetera, means nothing if they are slaughtered inhumanely in the end.
Foer also takes exception with those terms. He writes, “To be considered free-range, chickens raised for meat must have ‘access to the outdoors,’ which, if you take those words literally, means nothing. (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.)”
Another term Foer blasts is “fresh.” “More bullshit,” he writes. “According to the USDA, ‘fresh’ poultry has never had an internal temperature below 26 degrees or above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Fresh chicken can be frozen (thus the oxymoron ‘fresh frozen’), and there is no time component to food freshness. Pathogen-infested, feces-splattered chicken can technically be fresh, cage-free, and free-range, and sold in the supermarket legally (the shit does need to be rinsed off first).”
Foer tells us that “more than ten billion land animals [are] slaughtered for food every year in America,” but he does not leave out the “chicken of the sea,” to use a popular canned tuna slogan. He details the way fish are captured, how they are farmed, and in what conditions they live up until slaughter. Many people mistakenly believe eating fish is an acceptable solution to our overindulgence in red meat. Wrong. Fish often contain higher levels of mercury and other chemicals, and the factory fish farms are no better than their landlocked counterparts.
Who are the biggest violators both of ethics and health concerns? Foer singles out Tyson Foods and KFC—no surprises there. Does anyone out there believe healthy eating begins with fast food? As for Tyson, I feed my dog from their bags of chicken breasts due to his irritable bowel disease. I boil the breasts in a pot. What I see there makes me fight the gag reflex: hunks of grey-colored meat, slimy white streams in the water, globs of gristle and sometimes bone, and often an ammonia smell to the entire pot. I worry about my dog, but this meat is for human consumption. I feel nothing but trepidation for the people who purchase these discount bags of flash frozen chicken. Foer only confirms my worst fears when he discusses Tyson’s procedures for delivering food to the table. Tyson, according to Foer, is the main supplier to KFC restaurants. “An investigation at one large Tyson facility found some workers regularly ripped off the heads of fully conscious birds…” he writes, “urinated in the live-hang area (including on the conveyer belt carrying the birds), and let shoddy automated slaughter equipment that cut birds’ bodies rather than their necks go unrepaired…” At another site, “fully conscious chickens were kicked, stomped on, slammed into walls, had chewing tobacco spit in their eyes, literally had the shit squeezed out of them, and had their beaks ripped off.”
Foer presents a grim and horrific picture. There is some of the cutesy typeface tricks of his novels, but his message is clear. We are doing a disservice to our world with our out-of-control demand for meat. His book is a good beginning for those who wish to know more about what happens before that turkey, pig, chicken, or cow comes to the table. The information Foer presents is available elsewhere, including some interesting images and film clips posted on the internet. However, he presents our problem as a moral issue, not just a dietary preference, or a way to eat more healthy.
Jonathan Safran Foer believes we are committing atrocities, demonstrating our rampant disregard for our fellow creatures, and by not mending our ways, we are tempting the hand of God. And this reason alone should be enough for us to rethink our dietary choices.