Eating Animals

by Jonathan Safran Foer. Back Bay Books, 368 pages, $15 (paperback ) (Hebrew edition: Le'ekhol Ba'alei Hayim, translated by Naomi Carmel. Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan, 350 pages, NIS 89 )

The first time I decided to be a vegetarian, I was 15 years old. That lasted for a year and ended after my mother lured me with a meatball and insisted an iron deficiency could kill you. After that, I avoided finding out about how animals were treated by the food industry. I would change the TV channel, page through the magazine quickly or bypass the stand set up by the Israeli group Anonymous for Animal Rights. At the time, I didn't believe my own diet could affect an industry shaped by many powerful forces. About five years ago, at one of those Anonymous stands, I changed my mind.

I had heard the chilling descriptions of the way animals live and die on industrial farms before I opened Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals." The book is the product of a comprehensive journalistic investigation, in which the author visited small and large farms and interviewed farmers, workers and animal rights activists. From the news perspective, it does not reveal anything previously unknown. Nevertheless, reading it was a disturbing experience.

This virtuoso writer breathes life into the dry facts, the statistics and the suffering. The book's main innovation, though, is its fresh perspective, its non-didactic structure and absence of preachy self-righteousness. Foer does not offer a purely factual survey, nor is his goal to persuade readers to become vegetarian. His wish is to stimulate discussion of the topic of eating meat and to present it as a question. He wants to know what meat is, what its source is, how it is produced and what eating it entails. He takes an interest in the economic, social and environmental implications of eating animals.

Foer says the motive for the research he undertook was, above all, personal and familial. When his son was born and the author became responsible for feeding someone else, he felt a need to clarify for himself what was fit to eat. He is not an activist, an animal lover or a tree hugger, as you might expect the author of such a book to be, and so, he is not preaching to the choir.

Most people today are no longer naive about the source of their food. We know the idyllic picture of a cow roaming a broad meadow and munching green grass is far from the reality. We know the pastoral farm, with the mustachioed farmer who knows each of the animals by name and sees to their welfare, no longer exists. Some of us are aware of the tremendous environmental damage caused by the food industry. We have a general idea that meat, eggs and dairy products are laden with hormones and antibiotics, that they have their origins in genetic engineering and that the animals' lives are full of agonies. But we don't know to what extent.

"Eating Animals" makes tangible the huge distance between nostalgia and reality. Foer elucidates how factory farmers are not concerned with raising the animals or with their welfare. Instead, he writes, "they calculate how close to death they can keep the animals without killing them. How quickly they can be made to grow, how tightly they can be packed, how much or how little they can eat, how sick they can get without dying."

The author explains that nearly all animals in factory farms are genetically engineered. Therefore, irrespective of their living conditions - whether described as "free range," "organic" or some other category - their body structure destines them to a life full of pain and disease. The animals are held in extremely crowded conditions, they wallow in their excreta, all their natural instincts are thwarted and every moment of their existence is a nightmare. Even in death there is no comfort, since the moment of death is not in fact a moment, but rather a long and cruel process of fear and pain. While they are waiting for slaughter, pigs often die of heart attacks or lose the ability to walk. The machines designed to stun animals before they are slaughtered are not reliable, and so scores of animals every day go through the process of being transformed from a living being into a product while they are still conscious.

Foer's descriptions, which in their degree of detail, vividness and cruelty often bring to mind snuff films, leave nothing to the imagination and make it clear that the only word to describe the treatment of factory farm animals is abuse. No less.

Not everyone is aware of the close, scientifically proven connection between the situation of these animals and the increase in juvenile diabetes, immune system disorders, infectious disease, cancer, fatal influenzas like swine and bird flu, asthma and accelerated sexual maturation among girls. But even those who do know the facts, to some extent at least, forget them when it's time to bite into a juicy schnitzel. Foer calls this "willful forgetting."

Grandma's meatballs

A certain amount of forgetting is necessary to exist. If we were constantly aware of the horrors happening elsewhere or the dangers lying in wait for us, we wouldn't be able to pursue our lives. Still, we would not want to live totally detached from reality.

Food, according to Foer, is connected to memory. Eating meat is not only perceived as tasty and nourishing; it's hard for people to give up mom's schnitzel, grandma's meatballs or the chopped liver on seder night, not because of how they taste but because they were made by mom or grandma, or are part of the holiday ritual. Similarly, Independence Day barbecues are more of a social event than a culinary one.

"To give up the taste of sushi or roasted chicken is a loss that extends beyond giving up a pleasurable eating experience," writes Foer. "Changing what we eat and letting tastes fade from memory create a kind of cultural loss."

Without a doubt it is more pleasurable to recall family and friends when we think about chicken than it is to ponder the sick and tortured bird it was before it arrived on our plate. However, as Foer argues, "Remembering and forgetting are part of the same mental process ... So the question is not whether we forget but what, or whom, we forget - not whether our diets change, but how."

According to him, we have to choose between the morality entailed in not eating animals and the willful forgetting inextricably entwined with eating meat. The forgetting is closely connected to our defeatist attitude toward our ability to change. Many people would like to reduce animal suffering but do not believe in the power of consumer choice to influence the industry, a dangerous sense of powerlessness as it seeps into every area of life, making us indifferent toward our environment.

Although Foer believes the struggle for animals should involve lobbying for changes in the law, he also stresses the power of individual consumer choice. From the many interviews he conducted with farmers, he learned that "the entire goliath of the food industry is ultimately driven and determined by the choices we make as the waiter gets impatient for our order." As Wendell Berry has observed, every time you make a choice about food, you are farming by proxy.

Foer believes that even eating less meat can influence market forces, and he is opposed to the either/or mentality that makes people think they have to be a strict vegan or a greedy, conscienceless carnivore. The book's principal insight is that knowledge of the facts is important, even if it doesn't cause every individual to change his or her consumption habits, because it stimulates discussion. And indeed, one of the most significant ramifications of vegetarianism is that the presence of a vegetarian at the table is likely to remind people of all the things we forget concerning the eating of meat.

I am one of those vegetarians who don't take pleasure in annoying meat eaters; table manners are more important to me than ideology. However, Foer has reminded me that "ironically, the utterly unselective omnivore - 'I'm easy; I'll eat anything' - can appear more sensitive than the individual who tries to eat in a way that is good for society."

Moreover, vegetarians are attacked not only by those who want to enjoy their meal in peace and accuse the non-meat eaters of caring too much; vegetarians also get accused of not caring enough. I once had lunch with a friend and his wife, both of them energetic left-wing activists. When the wife realized I wasn't eating meat for reasons of conscience, she charged angrily that my value system was distorted and that, ultimately, I care more about animals than I do about Arabs.

"But I don't eat Arabs either," I said, trying to relieve the tension with unsuccessful humor. It didn't help; she was convinced my vegetarianism somehow harmed oppressed minorities.

This logic is mistaken. It is true there are many injustices in the world, but choosing to refrain from eating meat does not come at the expense of concern for oppressed people. On the contrary, as Foer argues: "Compassion is a muscle that gets stronger with use."

Is the suffering of animals and the other injustices caused by factory farming the most important thing in the world? Perhaps not. But, as Foer writes, "that's not the question."

"Is it more important than sushi, bacon or chicken nuggets?" he asks. "That's the question."

Noa Limone is a literary critic and writer. She is also a vegetarian.