A Review: Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals

Last night I met with my book club to discuss the second half of Jonathan Safran Foer's nonfiction title, Eating Animals.  As a big fan of Foer's fiction, and a once-upon-a-time vegetarian, I was intensely interested in what he'd have to say about the subject, and what his nonfiction might look like.

The verdict:

While Foer is undoubtedly a talented writer, I feel that his fictional titles are far superior to this guilt-driven, blood fest.

The title, as you might have guessed by now, is one man's journey to determine what it is to eat animals from the industry that Americans (and other parts of the world) rely on for food sources.  After the birth of his first child, Foer begins to examine where the meat he ingests actually comes from. Naturally we find (because the title wouldn't have amounted to much if the sites he visited were lush pastures with fresh air and open spaces) that the childhood fantasy of a gentle farmer is just that-- a fantasy.  The factory farms that Foer infiltrates (and, yes, he does attempt a mission impossible like adventure with an animal activist) are grime ridden, torture chambers. Readers discover that animals have standing room that is roughly the size of a standard sheet of paper, inhabiting large sheds devoid of natural light; add the fact that they're genetically modified so that they grow additional parts on their bodies and are pumped full of antibiotics to prevent illness that occurs anyway.  The scenes are horrific-- gut-wrenching-- producing gasp-out-loud moments.  And while it's disgusting and forces readers (most likely individuals that already sympathize with the stand against such treatment) to examine their food sources and speak up, Foer's inclusion of such horror comprises over half the book.  Ok, Foer, we get it.  We understood on page 30.

My problem is this:  Foer explicitly states that he's not trying to force individuals into giving up their meat eating habits completely. He goes as far as admitting that a world devoid of meat eaters is completely unrealistic.  However, he spends most of the book using the most disgusting examples he can provide to induce shock-- to guilt the reader into choosing an alternative lifestyle.  When he actually has the chance to explore farmers/ranchers/herders that are actually ethically raising livestock for human consumption, he makes passing remarks as if to discredit the movement entirely.  If a world full of meat eaters is completely unrealistic, then why not provide the readers (who at this point have almost certainly decided that their factory farm meat eating days are over) additional resources as to what they can do to make changes in their own lifestyle?

Furthermore, if Foer had been submitting this paper to a professor in college, there's no way it would have received a passing grade.  Sure, he provided statistics, but he rarely provided any information to elucidate these stats, simply throwing them within a paragraph. The text was so disorganized that I had a hard time following along with some of the arguments he was trying to expound upon.

The text wasn't a complete bust, though.  I enjoyed his discussion of the interpretation of language and how that plays a part in the foods that Americans typically eat.  Why do Americans find eating a pig, an animal similar in behavior to that of a cat, completely normal, while dogs/cats are completely off limits?

The idea that items labeled "fresh" and "free range" are hardly what you probably think they are.  It's made me realize that I need to make big changes to my diet.  Although J and I aren't big meat eaters, we've started visiting local markets to buy local eggs and other dairy products, in addition to meat.  It feels good to support a local effort that's working hard to be sustainable.  The numerous causes that the text supported require further research on my part, and I'm really looking forward to what I'll learn and work into my lifestyle.  I felt that it really encouraged a great discussion. Furthermore, this title offered Ang a platform to discuss the issues that she felt were important in her own life with a group where this type of sharing should flourish.


  1. An interesting review, I've been wanting to read this book for a while. I think a large part of the reason why we all eat meat from such horrible sources is cost - I would love to always eat ethically sourced food but I can't afford it.

  2. I've waffled back and forth on this title and all of your reasons for disliking it are the reasons I've stayed away. It always seemed like it'd be a Michael Moore treatment of the industry and from what you've said, that's what it sounds like. Brings up interesting questions and then goes off into his own world without really backing up statements.

  3. Yes, it can be quite expensive. However, I've learned to cut corners in other areas of my life so that I can still manage spending a little more on meat products. I thought it was informative.

    Yes, I would say it's safe to make the comparison. I ended up skimming through a chunk of the book because it was the same material and I wasn't learning anything. He spent far too much time examining the horrors, when I felt he could have really provided information to help others that wanted to be involved with the movement.

  4. It sounds like I need to wait and read this title until I'm ready to become a veggie again. It will undoubtedly shock me back into holding a disgust for meat.

  5. Brenna,
    Yes, I would advise as much. However, there are alternatives to giving up meat all together. With you living in the Midwest, it's actually a lot easier to come across small farm meat products. Check around local food markets and stands and see if you can't find something to cut out that factory farmed meat for good! I think the biggest challenge is eating out. Fortunately, the food revolution is spreading like wild fire in Atlanta, so we have so many options in terms of restaurant choices. Good luck!

  6. Well, you already know how I feel about the book, so I don't really have anything to add. You did an excellent job conveying the pros and cons objectively. It really is a topic that needs more attention.

    On a different note - so glad you're reading The Bird Sisters! Can't wait to hear what you think about it. I think it's a good pick to read after Eating Animals. Having such a sweet author is making it even more enjoyable for me.

  7. I'm already a vegetarian and have read and watched enough of this to not want to read this too. However, the surprising popularity of this book is encouraging - at the very least, it raises awareness, even if it's not perfectly done.

  8. I saw this at the library, but did not think I'd like it. I was afraid to try it, in truth, as a meat eating animal lover :(

  9. That's an interesting point of view on the problematic Beth. You're not embracing his point of view completely and it's the way it should be. There is a HUGE gory propaganda made by the vegetarians to turn people away from meat and this comes from unverified claims. I am acquainted with the agriculture business and most of these horror images we see in the news are from places that closed down or are disputed. It doesn't happen like that. Any farmer that take pride in his work will treat his animals properly.

  10. Even though I was a full-on vegetarian for a few years, and have been a quasi-one for half my life, for some reason I have absolutely no interest in reading this, and your review pretty much solidifies that. This might sound callous, but I can only pay so much attention to the origins of my clothes and food. I don't eat mammals (they just don't agree with my insides), and only occasionally eat fish & poultry. I don't need to be shocked into compliance - I think that's the wrong approach to promoting a sustainable and healthy lifestyle, and I resent the cheapness of such arguments. Awareness can be raised without the gross-out factor, and at some point, this whole unsustainable system we have going will collapse in on itself anyway, or we'll get smart and it won't. All we can do is try to be conscious of what we're eating to the best of our informational, financial, and nutritional abilities.


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