Review: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
(Hodder Headline, €16.90)
Until now, 32-year-old New York author Jonathan Safran Foer was known for his quirky best-selling novels Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close. Until now, he has sold hundreds of thousands of copies (675,000 at last count). Which is why it is surprising that, five years after his last novel, his latest book, Eating Animals, is a non-fiction treatise on the American meat industry and manifesto for vegetarianism.
Safran Foer starts with the animals closest to our hearts -- pets -- and the difference between how we treat them and the animals we eat. It's an effective indictment of our casual cruelty.
The story of how factory-farmed animals are treated and how they die makes up much of the book, and while these details are deeply disturbing and affecting, surprisingly, one of the most chilling chapters is the one that covers the words we use to describe food and how they have lost their meaning. Words like 'natural', 'free range,' even 'organic' mean little when analysed in the context in which they are used by the industry.
'Free-range' only requires that birds must have access to the outdoors, which means they can be kept in a shed with a door that is closed all but occasionally. Organic foods don't necessarily ensure more humane treatment of animals.
The most disturbing facts are to do with poultry, whose very genetics have been altered so they will grow bigger, faster, lay more eggs and be destroyed once they have served their purpose -- to produce cheaper meat.
But what of those people who can only afford to buy cheap poultry?
Frank Reese is described in the book as "the last poultry farmer", a farmer who has raised turkeys on his farm for the last 60 years.
He says: "Most of the folks who buy my turkeys are not rich by any means; they're struggling on fixed incomes. But they're willing to pay more for the sake of what they believe in. They're willing to pay the real price. And to those who say it's just too much to pay for a turkey, I always say to them, 'Don't eat turkey'. It's possible you can't afford to care, but it's certain you can't afford not to care."
Eating Animals is a powerful book, but the one thing that reduces its impact for Irish readers is that it is focused mainly on the US meat industry.
What makes this book work, though, is that Safran Foer remains a storyteller at heart. He presents a litany of mind-boggling information, but told through the stories of real people, and his own story (he was inspired to find out about the meat industry after the birth of his first son), it becomes accessible and meaningful.
He also gives us the viewpoints of animal rights activists, vegetarian ranchers, factory farmers, and family farmers -- all in their own words.
The book ends as it begins, with the story of Safran Foer's grandmother who, when she was starving to death as a holocaust survivor, refused to eat pork to save her life. She told Safran Foer, "if nothing matters, there's nothing to save".
This is the point that Safran Foer is really trying to make. It's a call to turn away from indifference and ignorance and move towards informed ethical choices when it comes to eating meat. And he manages to make this an engaging story, while making a compelling case.