Eating Animals

Book notes for “Eating Animals”, Jonathan Safran Foer

Quick review:

Incredible book that covers the arguments around meat eating in a balanced, calm way.


Approximately 800 million chickens, turkeys and pigs are factory farmed in the United Kingdom every year—more than ten animals for every human. (If this number were to include cows and fish—which are, for different reasons, difficult to quantify—it would be dramatically larger.) Approximately 95 percent of poultry and 60 percent of pigs are raised on factory farms. The techniques and outcomes are often identical to those that I describe. location 30

What our babysitter said made sense to me, not only because it seemed true, but because it was the extension to food of everything my parents had taught me. We don’t hurt family members. We don’t hurt friends or strangers. We don’t even hurt upholstered furniture. My not having thought to include animals in that list didn’t make them the exceptions to it. It just made me a child, ignorant of the world’s workings. Until I wasn’t. At which point I had to change my life. location 92

I assumed we’d maintain a diet of conscientious inconsistency. Why should eating be different from any of the other ethical realms of our lives? We were honest people who occasionally told lies, careful friends who sometimes acted clumsily. We were vegetarians who from time to time ate meat. location 132

There are thousands of foods on the planet, and explaining why we eat the relatively small selection we do requires some words. We need to explain that the parsley on the plate is for decoration, that pasta is not a “breakfast food,” why we eat wings but not eyes, cows but not dogs. Stories establish narratives, and stories establish rules. location 164

I wanted to address these questions comprehensively. So although upwards of 99 percent of all animals eaten in this country come from “factory farms”—and I will spend much of the rest of the book explaining what this means and why it matters—the other 1 percent of animal agriculture is also an important part of this story. The disproportionate amount of this book that is occupied by discussion of the best family-run animal farms reflects how significant I think they are, but at the same time, how insignificant: they prove the rule. location 173

While this book is the product of an enormous amount of research, and is as objective as any work of journalism can be—I used the most conservative statistics available (almost always from government, and peer-reviewed academic and industry sources) and hired two outside fact-checkers to corroborate them—I think of it as a story. There’s plenty of data to be found, but it is often thin and malleable. Facts are important, but they don’t, on their own, provide meaning—especially when they are so bound to linguistic choices. What does a precisely measured pain response in chickens mean? Does it mean pain? What does pain mean? No matter how much we learn about the physiology of the pain—how long it persists, the symptoms it produces, and so forth—none of it will tell us anything definitive. But place facts in a story, a story of compassion or domination, or maybe both—place them in a story about the world we live in and who we are and who we want to be—and you can begin to speak meaningfully about eating animals. location 197

“The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.” “He saved your life.” “I didn’t eat it.” “You didn’t eat it?” “It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.” “Why?” “What do you mean why?” “What, because it wasn’t kosher?” “Of course.” “But not even to save your life?” “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.” location 229

The Mexican hairless dog was the principal food species of the Aztecs. location 318

In America, millions of dogs and cats euthanized in animal shelters every year become the food for our food. (Almost twice as many dogs and cats are euthanized as are adopted.) So let’s just eliminate this inefficient and bizarre middle step. location 329

A simple trick from the backyard astronomer: if you are having trouble seeing something, look slightly away from it. The most light-sensitive parts of our eyes (those we need to see dim objects) are on the edges of the region we normally use for focusing. Eating animals has an invisible quality. Thinking about dogs, and their relationship to the animals we eat, is one way of looking askance and making something invisible visible. location 353

No reader of this book would tolerate someone swinging a pickax at a dog’s face. Nothing could be more obvious or less in need of explanation. Is such concern morally out of place when applied to fish, or are we silly to have such unquestioning concern about dogs? Is the suffering of a drawn-out death something that is cruel to inflict on any animal that can experience it, or just some animals? location 383

If we were to one day encounter a form of life more powerful and intelligent than our own, and it regarded us as we regard fish, what would be our argument against being eaten? location 388

many people seem to fall back on this all-or-nothing framework when discussing their everyday food choices. It’s a way of thinking that we would never apply to other ethical realms. (Imagine always or never lying.) I can’t count the times that upon telling someone I am vegetarian, he or she responded by pointing out an inconsistency in my lifestyle or trying to find a flaw in an argument I never made. (I have often felt that my vegetarianism matters more to such people than it does to me.) location 403

FOR EVERY TEN TUNA, SHARKS, and other large predatory fish that were in our oceans fifty to a hundred years ago, only one is left. Many scientists predict the total collapse of all fished species in less than fifty years—and location 411

Globally, roughly 50 billion land animals are now factory farmed every year. (There is no tally of fish.) location 422

Once the picture of industrial fishing is filled in—the 1.4 billion hooks deployed annually on longlines (on each of which is a chunk of fish, squid, or dolphin flesh used as bait); the 1,200 nets, each one thirty miles in length, used by only one fleet to catch only one species; the ability of a single vessel to haul in fifty tons of sea animals in a few minutes—it becomes easier to think of contemporary fishers as factory farmers rather than fishermen. location 435

I felt shame for living in a nation of unprecedented prosperity—a nation that spends a smaller percentage of income on food than any other civilization has in human history—but in the name of affordability treats the animals it eats with cruelty so extreme it would be illegal if inflicted on a dog. location 513

Animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined; it is the number one cause of climate change. location 527

The typical cage for egg-laying hens allows each sixty-seven square inches of floor space—somewhere between the size of this page and a sheet of printer paper. Such cages are stacked between three and nine tiers high—Japan has the world’s highest battery cage unit, with cages stacked eighteen tiers high—in windowless sheds. Step your mind into a crowded elevator, an elevator so crowded you cannot turn around without bumping into (and aggravating) your neighbor. The elevator is so crowded you are often held aloft. This is a kind of blessing, as the slanted floor is made of wire, which cuts into your feet. After some time, those in the elevator will lose their ability to work in the interest of the group. Some will become violent; others will go mad. A few, deprived of food and hope, will become cannibalistic. There is no respite, no relief. No elevator repairman is coming. The doors will open once, at the end of your life, for your journey to the only place worse location 562

Layers make eggs. (Their egg output has more than doubled since the 1930s.) Broilers make flesh. (In the same period, they have been engineered to grow more than twice as large in less than half the time. Chickens once had a life expectancy of fifteen to twenty years, but the modern broiler is typically killed at around six weeks. Their daily growth rate has increased roughly 400 percent.) location 576

What happens to all of the male offspring of layers? If man hasn’t designed them for meat, and nature clearly hasn’t designed them to lay eggs, what function do they serve? They serve no function. Which is why all male layers—half of all the layer chickens born in the United States, more than 250 million chicks a year—are destroyed. Destroyed? That seems like a word worth knowing more about. Most male layers are destroyed by being sucked through a series of pipes onto an electrified plate. Other layer chicks are destroyed in other ways, and it’s impossible to call those animals more or less fortunate. Some are tossed into large plastic containers. The weak are trampled to the bottom, where they suffocate slowly. The strong suffocate slowly at the top. Others are sent fully conscious through macerators (picture a wood chipper filled with chicks). location 580

The average shrimp-trawling operation throws 80 to 90 percent of the sea animals it captures overboard, dead or dying, as bycatch. (Endangered species amount to much of this bycatch.) Shrimp account for only 2 percent of global seafood by weight, but shrimp trawling accounts for 33 percent of global bycatch. location 594

nature isn’t cruel. And neither are the animals in nature that kill and occasionally even torture one another. Cruelty depends on an understanding of cruelty, and the ability to choose against it. Or to choose to ignore it. location 649

Some downed animals are seriously ill or injured, but often enough they require little more than water and rest to be spared a slow, painful death. There aren’t reliable statistics available about downers (who would report them?), but estimates put the number of downed cows at around 200,000 a year—about two cows for every word in this book. When it comes to animal welfare, the absolute bare minimum, the least we could conceivably give, would seem to be euthanizing downed animals. But that costs money, and downers have no use and so earn no regard or mercy. In most of America’s fifty states it is perfectly legal (and perfectly common) to simply let downers die of exposure over days or toss them, live, into dumpsters. location 695

The most current data even quantifies the role of diet: omnivores contribute seven times the volume of greenhouse gases that vegans do. location 729

The UN summarized the environmental effects of the meat industry this way: raising animals for food (whether on factory or traditional farms) “is one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global…. [Animal agriculture] should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale.” location 730

The justifications for eating animals and for not eating them are often identical: we are not them. location 802

Scientists have documented a pig language of sorts, and pigs will come when called (to humans or one another), will play with toys (and have favorites), and have been observed coming to the aid of other pigs in distress. Dr. Stanley Curtis, an animal scientist friendly to the industry, empirically evaluated the cognitive abilities of pigs by training them to play a video game with a joystick modified for snouts. They not only learned the games, but did so as fast as chimpanzees, demonstrating a surprising capacity for abstract representation. location 817

Fish build complex nests, form monogamous relationships, hunt cooperatively with other species, and use tools. They recognize one another as individuals (and keep track of who is to be trusted and who is not). They make decisions individually, and monitor social prestige and vie for better positions (to quote from the peer review journal Fish and Fisheries: they use “Machiavellian strategies of manipulation, punishment and reconciliation”). They have significant long-term memories, are skilled in passing knowledge to one another through social networks, and can also pass on information generationally. They even have what the scientific literature calls “long-standing ‘cultural traditions’ for particular pathways to feeding, schooling, resting or mating sites.” location 827

Like fish, chickens can pass information generationally. They also deceive one another and can delay satisfaction for larger rewards. location 838

KFC is arguably the company that has increased the sum total of suffering in the world more than any other in history. KFC buys nearly a billion chickens a year location 848

If you go to see Knut and get hungry, just a few feet from his enclosure is a stand selling “Wurst de Knut,” made from the flesh of factory-farmed pigs, which are at least as intelligent and deserving of our regard as Knut. This is the species barrier. location 986

Knut is a baby polar bear

A chick is trembling on its side, legs splayed, eyes crusted over. Scabs protrude from bald patches. Its beak is slightly open, and its head is shaking back and forth. How old is it? A week? Two? Has it been like this for all of its life, or did something happen to it? What could have happened to it? C will know what to do, I think. And she does. She opens her bag and removes a knife. Holding one hand over the chick’s head—is she keeping it still or covering its eyes?—she slices its neck, rescuing it. location 1134

This isn’t animal experimentation, where you can imagine some proportionate good at the other end of the suffering. This is what we feel like eating. Tell me something: Why is taste, the crudest of our senses, exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses? If you stop and think about it, it’s crazy. Why doesn’t a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to killing and eating it? It’s easy to dismiss that question but hard to respond to it. And how would you judge an artist who mutilated animals in a gallery because it was visually arresting? How riveting would the sound of a tortured animal need to be to make you want to hear it that badly? Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals. location 1186

As a wild hen, you begin communicating with your chicks even before they hatch, responding to peeps of distress by shifting your weight. The image of your motherly protection and care will be used in the second verse of Genesis to describe the hovering of God’s first breath over the first water. Jesus will invoke you as an image of protective love: “I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” location 1263

Today, it isn’t unusual for meat to travel almost halfway around the globe to reach your supermarket. The average distance our meat travels hovers around fifteen hundred miles. location 1346

On average, Americans eat the equivalent of 21,000 entire animals in a lifetime location 1522

at the flu’s peak the average life expectancy for Americans was reduced to thirty-seven years. The scale of the misery was so vast in America—as elsewhere—that I find it impossible to understand why I didn’t learn more about it in school, or through memorials or stories. As many as twenty thousand Americans died in a week during the height of the Spanish flu. Steam shovels were used to dig mass graves. location 1552

All told, there are fifty billion (and counting) factory-farmed birds worldwide. If India and China eventually start consuming poultry at the rate the United States does, it would more than double this already mind-blowing figure. Fifty billion. Every year fifty billion birds are made to live and die like this. It cannot be overstated how revolutionary and relatively new this reality is—the number of factory-farmed birds was zero before Celia Steele’s 1923 experiment. And we’re not just raising chickens differently; we’re eating more chickens: Americans eat 150 times as many chickens as we did only eighty years ago. location 1723

According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), poultry is by far the largest cause. According to a study published in Consumer Reports, 83 percent of all chicken meat (including organic and antibiotic-free brands) is infected with either campylobacter or salmonella at the time of purchase. I’m not sure why more people aren’t aware of (and angry about) the rates of avoidable food-borne illness. Perhaps it doesn’t seem obvious that something is amiss simply because anything that happens all the time, like meat (especially poultry) becoming infected by pathogens, tends to fade into the background. location 1748

For example, the next time a friend has a sudden “flu”—what folks sometimes misdescribe as “the stomach flu”—ask a few questions. Was your friend’s illness one of those “twenty-four-hour flus” that come and go quickly—retch or shit then relief? The diagnosis isn’t quite so simple, but if the answer to this question is yes, your friend probably didn’t have the flu at all—he or she was probably among the 76 million cases of food-borne illness the CDC estimates occur in America each year. Your friend didn’t “catch a bug” so much as eat a bug. And in all likelihood that bug was created by factory farming. location 1753

Study after study has shown that antimicrobial resistance follows quickly on the heels of the introduction of new drugs on factory farms. For example, in 1995, when the Food and Drug Administration approved fluoroquinolones—such as Cipro—for use in chickens against the protest of the Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of bacteria resistant to this powerful new class of antibiotics rose from almost zero to 18 percent by 2002. A broader study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed an eightfold increase in antimicrobial resistance from 1992 to 1997, and, using molecular subtyping, linked this increase to the use of antimicrobials in farmed chickens. location 1771

Our sustenance now comes from misery. We know that if someone offers to show us a film on how our meat is produced, it will be a horror film. We perhaps know more than we care to admit, keeping it down in the dark places of our memory—disavowed. location 1805

If the world followed America’s lead, it would consume over 165 billion chickens annually (even if the world population didn’t increase). And then what? Two hundred billion? Five hundred? Will the cages stack higher or grow smaller or both? On what date will we accept the loss of antibiotics as a tool to prevent human suffering? How many days of the week will our grandchildren be ill? Where does it end? location 1879

I do notice one pig, however, that is lying on its side, trembling somewhat. And when the knocker comes out, while all of the others jump to their feet and become agitated, this one continues to lie there and tremble. If George were acting that way, we’d take her straight to the vet. And if someone saw that I wasn’t doing anything for her, they would at least think my humanity was somehow deficient. location 2015

Today a typical pig factory farm will produce 7.2 million pounds of manure annually, a typical broiler facility will produce 6.6 million pounds, and a typical cattle feedlot 344 million pounds. location 2215

All told, farmed animals in the United States produce 130 times as much waste as the human population—roughly 87,000 pounds of shit per second. The polluting strength of this shit is 160 times greater than raw municipal sewage. And yet there is almost no waste-treatment infrastructure for farmed animals—no toilets, obviously, but also no sewage pipes, no one hauling it away for treatment, and almost no federal guidelines regulating what happens to it. location 2217

Smithfield’s earnings look impressive—the company had sales of $12 billion in 2007—until one realizes the scale of the costs they externalize: the pollution from the shit, of course, but also the illnesses caused by that pollution and the associated degradation of property values (to name only the most obvious externalizations). Without passing these and other burdens on to the public, Smithfield would not be able to produce the cheap meat it does without going bankrupt. As with all factory farms, the illusion of Smithfield’s profitability and “efficiency” is maintained by the immense sweep of its plunder. location 2244

A major source of suffering for salmon and other farmed fish is the abundant presence of sea lice, which thrive in the filthy water. These lice create open lesions and sometimes eat down to the bones on a fish’s face—a phenomenon common enough that it is known as the “death crown” in the industry. A single salmon farm generates swarming clouds of sea lice in numbers thirty thousand times higher than naturally occur. location 2433

Whether we’re talking about fish species, pigs, or some other eaten animal, is such suffering the most important thing in the world? Obviously not. But that’s not the question. Is it more important than sushi, bacon, or chicken nuggets? That’s the question. location 2484

Here’s why: apply her argument for meat eating to the farming of dogs and cats—or even human beings. Most of us lose our sympathy. In fact, her arguments sound eerily similar (and are structurally identical) to the arguments of slaveholders who advocated treating slaves better without abolishing slavery. One could force someone into slavery and provide “a good life and an easy death,” as Nicolette put it, speaking of farmed animals. Is that preferable to abusing them as slaves? Sure. But that is not what anyone wants. location 2713

Usually, ethical decision making means choosing between unavoidable and serious conflicts of interest. In this case, the conflicting interests are these: a human being’s desire for a palate pleasure, and an animal’s interest in not having her throat slit open. Nicolette will tell you that they give the animal a “good life and an easy death.” But the lives they give animals aren’t nearly as good as those most of us give our dogs and cats. (They may give animals a better life and death than Smithfield, but good?) And in any case, what kind of life ends at the age of twelve, the human-proportionate age of the oldest nonbreeding animals on farms like Bill and Nicolette’s? location 2730

Saying that meat eating can be ethical sounds “nice” and “tolerant” only because most people like to be told that doing whatever they want to do is moral. It’s very popular, of course, when a vegetarian like Nicolette gives meat eaters cover to forget the real moral challenge that meat presents. But today’s social conservatives are yesterday’s “extremists” on issues like women’s rights, civil rights, children’s rights, and so on. (Who advocates half measures on the issue of slavery?) Why, when it comes to eating animals, is it suddenly problematic to point out what is scientifically obvious and irrefutable: other animals are more like us than they’re unlike us? They are our “cousins,” as Richard Dawkins puts it. Even saying “You’re eating a corpse,” which is irrefutable, is called hyperbolic. No, it’s just true. location 2744

No jokes here, and no turning away. Let’s say what we mean: animals are bled, skinned, and dismembered while conscious. It happens all the time, and the industry and the government know it. Several plants cited for bleeding or skinning or dismembering live animals have defended their actions as common in the industry and asked, perhaps rightly, why they were being singled out. location 2961

Just how destructive does a culinary preference have to be before we decide to eat something else? If contributing to the suffering of billions of animals that live miserable lives and (quite often) die in horrific ways isn’t motivating, what would be? If being the number one contributor to the most serious threat facing the planet (global warming) isn’t enough, what is? And if you are tempted to put off these questions of conscience, to say not now, then when? location 3149

If this entire book could be decanted into a single question—not something easy, loaded, or asked in bad faith, but a question that fully captured the problem of eating and not eating animals—it might be this: Should we serve turkey at Thanksgiving? location 3210