As far as I know, the only people I have inspired to be vegan are those I've given birth to. So I give full credit to any book which can "turn someone vegan" - as (most famously) Natalie Portman says Eating Animals did for her. Even more because this is not exactly a vegan book.
Unusually, the author, Jonathan Safran Foer, was a successful popular author before applying his talents to the discussion of our entrenched animal-eating culture. He reports being an off-and-on vegetarian and sometimes vegan (but probably not now).
He introduces the book with a touch of his family history - a personal demonstration of the habits and psychology of eating, and eating animals, which the rest of the book then takes global. The birth of his son focused his desire to understand food: for himself and his family.
Us and them
The first major chapter discusses the hypocrisy of our relationship with animals. He illustrates this with a very ecologically sound argument in support of eating dogs (and cats), including a Filipino dog recipe.
He also points out the acceptance of the torture inflicted on fish even during the ever-popular sport of recreational fishing - damage that would draw outrage and charges if a dog were the victim. Why the difference?
Then, industrial fishing. The companies involved advertise attractive images of traditional fishing while profiting via modern war technologies like radar, echo sounders, and satellite GPS. These methods kill many more sea animals for sale than ever possible before, but also many times their number in other sea animals (bycatch)
The state of our endangered seahorses is presented as one example of the shame Foer felt when facing the usually-hidden impact of our food choices.
Foer next presents a glossary of terms used in the animal industry and in our everyday life. Starting with Animal, he uses this glossary to examine how our words and assumptions guide our choices.
"Language is never fully trustworthy, but when it comes to eating animals, words are as often used to misdirect and camouflage as they are to communicate. Some words, like veal, help us forget what we are actually talking about. Some, like free-range, can mislead those whose consciences seek clarification. Some, like happy, mean the opposite of what they would seem. And some, like natural, mean next to nothing."
You can check out my own musings on the language topic. Foer does a great job of inserting facts into the word definitions, educating in palatable bite-sized chunks.
Down on the farm
Next is a thrilling tale of Foer's visit to a factory turkey farm - accompanying an ex-poultry employee turned activist. This is punctuated by a "rescue" (killing a bird that was dying slowly), and some personal thoughts from that activist.
This is followed by an essay from a factory farmer. To keep it short, I can only say it contains no surprises given its source. At the end, the farmer recommends education before seeing, trusting your head and not your eyes, and starting from the beginning to learn about animals and farming.
Foer uses this as a transition to a very brief history of animals, humans, and the beginning of farming. We discover the genesis of factory farming and the animals they have created. And the last word about life and death comes from a very proud small turkey farmer.
Foer next leads us down the causative path of factory farming and foodborne human infections. If our overdue pandemic doesn't scare you, then the details of the (lack of) regulation of these concentrated farms should.
Then we learn about the correlation between eating even uninfected animal products and our top killers: heart disease, cancer and stroke. While the evidence is overwhelming, this crucial information is constantly distorted by the animal industry, even into the scientific and government groups who are tasked with caring for our health.
"...we are constantly lied to about nutrition...When I say we are being lied to, I'm not impugning the scientific literature, but relying upon it. What the public learns of the scientific data on nutrition and health (especially from the government's nutritional guidelines) comes to us by way of many hands."
He discusses Marion Nestle's insider exposes of the USDA, and her comparison of the food industry with the cigarette industry.
Yes - let's talk about slaughter and manure.
We learn about the slaughter procedure at an independent slaughterhouse, and about the pigs facing their deaths. Foer's own contradictory feelings are a story in themselves - as he meets nice pleasant people at the slaughterhouse, his personal connection with his hosts conflicts with his feelings about what they are doing to the intelligent pigs.
Then we visit a small traditional pig farm, and hear the impassioned pleas of this now-niche farmer against the rise of the factory farms - remember that your food choices and purchases are "farming by proxy." Ironically, that story closes with the news that a factory farm was starting up right next to the small farmer's retirement property.
This leads seamlessly into the factory farms' waste problem. In short, thousands of animals, no toilets, poisoned earth, slaps on the corporate wrist, people keep voting with their dollars for cheap meat. And of course, we hear about the "lives" these factory animal products lead - and these horrors are not exceptions, but representative.
At the end of this chapter, Foer makes a few strong statements against all factory farming, and concludes firmly that he would not choose conventional meat - even, that it is indefensible. But he admits confusion when considering more traditional animal producers.
Could it be OK?
In this book, Foer overrepresents the views of the smaller operators (in their tiny minority) from the industry, presumably to resolve his confusion on whether animal production is acceptable on the smaller scale.
A visit to a cattle ranch that is owned in part by a vegetarian produces much longwinded discussion peppered with inconsistencies: boiling down to the conflict between promoting animal rights (not using animals) and animal welfare (treating them really well while using/killing animals).
Next, Foer shows us the cows' trip to the slaughterhouse based on documentary evidence. Again, the horrors are such that they must either be ignored or rejected at some level.
He then asks whether there is a likely path for the success of the animal welfare side and those in the animal industry who work to promote it. His conclusion? No, a vegetarian diet is the only practical way to avoid animal cruelty (although he respects their efforts). As final punctuation, the owner of the cattle ranch featured in this chapter was forced to leave his own company due to differences over profit vs ethics.
"To accept the factory farm feels inhuman."
Foer wraps it all up with some more personal history, national traditions plus some realities of the global table, and a hope for new animal-friendly stories in his own family.
Eating Animals is highly recommended for nonvegetarians. Vegans probably don't need to read it, but give it to your nonveg friends and family for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
For me, as a longtime involved vegan, Eating Animals presented nothing new and wandered about the topics too much. I also found the many interviews with the animal producers annoying because of their self-justifying illogic. And of course, Foer is still not quite on the side of ethical vegetarianism, much less veganism.
However, for anyone just learning about how our society treats animals, the information is presented perfectly. Telling interesting stories about real people interspersed with the factual horrors means it might just get read to the end by the unconvinced. The long winding explanations of the animal producers expose that faulty reasoning to a reader who may be supporting their own habits with similar arguments.