Skip to content

On “EATING ANIMALS” by Jonathan Safran Foer


I immensely enjoyed "EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED" (even on the big screen) and eagerly anticipated "EATING ANIMALS" (Little, Brown 2009) by Jonathan Safran Foer.
His writing is beautiful, though I do have to admit that I haven't seen "shit" and its variations so frequently in one printed piece in quite a while. Ever, in fact.

The good news is that if you know someone who needs to be schooled on all of the sordid details of factory farming, and appreciates good writing, this is a great book. Also, if, like me, you know someone who appreciates the things we do with language to mask the reality of our behavior, this is a great book. And if you know someone who still eats fish or anyone else from the sea, this is a fantastic book, as I don't recall anyone giving sea creatures the respect they deserve in a long time (and telling their audience the truth about their lives and deaths). Furthermore, if you know someone who is new to parenting and suddenly confronted with questions of what to feed a child and why, this is a great book. Finally, if you know someone who gravitates toward the philosophical issues around our use of animals, this is a good book. Not great, but good.

I say "if you know someone" because this isn't a book I'd recommend to vegans for their vegan education efforts. The vegans I know would probably find it a bit maddening, and here's why:

  • We aren't sure whether Foer is a vegan. He never says he is. He always refers to himself and his wife and his child as "vegetarian." Yet he spends time describing the miserable deaths of day-old male chicks and understands what happens in dairy production, and I assume he doesn't partake of anyone's eggs or milk. But why does he say "vegetarian?" That bothers me, as there's a significant difference in motivation for vegans and vegetarians and he sounds like one, yet calls himself the other.
  • Then again, he is not against the consumption of animals, "in general" (198). He is against it for himself and his family. There's not enough evidence for an accusation of moral relativism, but for me the message is a mixed one.
  • And what follows, as you might imagine, is his support of "ethical meat" (for those who insist on eating animals). This should come as no surprise as he is on the board of Farm Forward-along with John Mackey and Bruce Friedrich-the latter of whom figures prominently in the book as does his employer, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
  • This says it all: "[T]he vision of sustainable farms that give animals a good life (a life as good as we give our dogs or cats) and an easy death (as easy as a death we give our suffering and terminally ill companion animals) has moved me" (242). The Nimans move him, as do several other farmers, including one who "apologizes to his animals as they are sent off to slaughter" (244), as if that's any consolation to someone whose life you are about to take when you don't need to.

If you're a vegan and you read books by vegans and about our relationship with sentient nonhumans, there's nothing new in "EATING ANIMALS." However, I do like how Foer words some concepts that we all chat about regularly. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

  • "For thousands of years, farmers took their cues from natural processes. Factory farming considers nature an obstacle to overcome" (34). Of course, the problem here, as in the entire book, is that factory farming is clearly the enemy, while killing animals unnecessarily isn't given any more airtime than Foer's personal, philosophical moments that he doesn't require of anyone else.
  • "Imagine being served a plate of sushi. But this plate also holds all of the animals that were killed for your serving of sushi. The plate might have to be five feet across" (50).
  • "Some have tried to resolve this gap by hunting or butchering an animal themselves, as if those experiences might somehow legitimize the endeavor of eating animals. This is very silly. Murdering someone would surely prove that you are capable of killing, but it wouldn't be the most reasonable way to understand why you should or shouldn't do it.

Killing an animal oneself is more often than not a way to forget the problem while pretending to remember. This is perhaps more harmful than ignorance. It's always possible to wake someone from sleep, but no amount of noise will wake someone who is pretending to be asleep" (102). I love that. However, in the context of his book I'd add: "SEE Compassionate Carnivore," and the only problem with that is that his argument, which sounds here like it's against compassionate carnivorism, is actually for it in the end.

  • "[N]o fish gets a good death. Not a single one. You never have to wonder if the fish on your plate had to suffer. It did" (193). Note that the "it" after all of that stopped me in my tracks, but what with editors, Foer might not have had control over that.

This is not a book about animal rights, and some might say Foer gets animal rights wrong as his only reference is PETA. In all fairness, most people's only reference is PETA. However, Foer does claim to have spent a couple of years researching and it is odd to me that the only subject of animal rights discussion is an organization that is ambiguous, at best, in its message about animals.

What's most disappointing is that Foer is intentional in his message that eating animals isn't okay for him, but that he is excited to support people who kill animals when they don't need to. I have a difficult time understanding how someone has reached that conclusion after so much deliberation and research. I have a difficult time understanding his borderline fetishizing of several small farms (and a note to all of you as annoyed as I was with "Food, Inc." and Michael Pollan–Polyface gets some harsh criticism from someone Foer interviewed and is portrayed as a bit of a scam).

I simply don't understand the core message of this book–that eating animals can be wrong for one person, yet that same person supports the unnecessary slaughter of animals as long as it's done in a certain way.

Foer does have an answer to that, and it's that the vast majority of animals the average American eats came from factory farms, so if we convince them of the evils of that system they will eat more "vegetarian" meals (again, the focus on flesh bothers me) and they will seek out Farm Forward-approved sources. I don't know if the thesis of supply and demand is true but it sounds good. Meanwhile, Foer admits that the labels we find regarding the treatment of animals are "bullshit," so other than two or three farms that he personally approves of, the reader is left with being a "vegetarian," cutting down on "meat," or doing nothing.

In other words, "EATING ANIMALS" is a remarkably palatable book for the masses. In the end, they can still have their dogs and eat their pigs, without feeling that they are doing anything wrong by favoring one species over another, or taking someone's life when they don't need to.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Olivia #

    Gosh, I'm sorry to hear of Foer's ultimate (non)stand on the subject. I didn't realize when reading his excerpt in the NY Times Magazine a few weeks ago that this was his (non)position.

    Besides incorrectly using the word "it" to describe sentient beings (and I agree it could well be at the editors' insistence), does he also use the words "that" or "which" instead of "who"? Probably.

    Sigh — just when we could've used a prominent whole-hearted advocate for all farmed animals, no matter where they happen to be bred, brought up and executed.

    October 26, 2009
  2. His article in The NYT caused quite a stir, so his book may follow suit. We shall see. I have yet to read it.

    Interesting that he calls himself vegetarian yet practices, presumably, a vegan life-style. I noticed a similar tactic made my Hillary Rettig, vegan, life coach, and author of The Lifelong Activist. In an interview I heard her state that although she's vegan she will describe herself to be "vegetarian." She will follow up with further description such as "I am a vegetarian who doesn't consume eggs or milk." She does so quite intentionally and I can't recall why, but always pondered that decision of hers. Now I want to see if I can find that interview.

    October 26, 2009
  3. Porphyry #

    I'm planning to read this book only because it's being promoted by so heavily and I'll need to be informed when it comes up in mainstream discussions. I read Omnivores Dilemma for similar reasons.

    Foer was even on Larry King as "the vegetarian," but his book had barely hit the shelves yet, and of all the vegetarians with long term street cred you could call, he would be the near the last on everybody's list (if people even knew that he was vegetarian).

    I'll approach this book cautiously, and your review has put it in a better light than I was anticipating. I knew from the onset that he was going to be pro small farmer and humane meat on some level, but even in his promotional article in the New York Times, he had some positive (and negative) memorable quotes on vegetarianism. The punchline from his WWII surviving grandmother was fantastic.

    “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

    Foer was stringing me along through the whole article with his emphasis on the importance of culture that his grandmother represented, so I was glad that her reasons for abstaining from pork, even though she was desperately starving, became the final word.

    This quote is great:

    "Some have tried to resolve this gap by hunting or butchering an animal themselves, as if those experiences might somehow legitimize the endeavor of eating animals. This is very silly. Murdering someone would surely prove that you are capable of killing, but it wouldn't be the most reasonable way to understand why you should or shouldn't do it."

    Zing! Right at ya Michael Pollan and assorted foodies. It's a succinct refutation to "You're not a farmer, butcher, hunter, seal clubber, etc. so no one but the practitioner can possibly have a worthwhile opinion on the subject."

    My biggest reservation regarding Eating Animals is that I'm not convinced on how well researched Foer is on historical vegetarianism. If he doesn't mention the long legacy of vegetarian history and only brings up PeTA (or Peter Singer), it's disappointing. It's a big mistake to associate vegetarianism or veganism as a reaction to factory faming (though even many vegetarians and vegans do this) since the philosophies and practice of not harming animals by abstaining from eating or using them predates Christianity and was an idea that was circulating in the West before (and after) the Industrial Revolution.

    If there's criticism for Polyface I'm definitely getting this book. That farm gets way to much publicity for an operation that hasn't been examined or quantified with impartial inquiry. I can't form a real opinion about Polyface's viability as a (non-vegan) solution to factory faming until an objective third party research team quantifies the claims. Sorry, I just can't take Joel Salatin's and Michael Pollan's word for it, especially with Pollan's interpretation of facts. I dislike how people, especially media outlets (journalists, and documentaries), go along with everything he claims without much objective scrutiny of their own.

    It's unfortunate that Foer seems to have been seduced by the romanticized storytelling of small farm animal husbandry and slaughter. Again, a broader vegetarian historical perspective would probably alleviate this tendency. Even a broader historical perspective on farming alone would demonstrate that it's never been a "good ol' days" ideal.

    Finally, the contrast in tone between your review of Eating Animals and Erik Markus's is very… interesting 😉

    "It’s by far the best book on agribusiness and vegetarianism I’ve ever read."

    "At long last, we, and the animals, have a bestselling book that gives both veganism and conscientious omnivorism a fair hearing."

    Perhaps he's correct regarding agribusiness and conscientious omnivores, but on vegetarianism and veganism? Somehow I don't think so. Unless he's just being overly positive for the sake of that style of animal rights politics.

    To end on a positive note, perhaps the one Erik was getting at, it sounds like Eating Animals may be yet another one of those books that people read that leads them to become vegetarian (of some form) and perhaps eventually (though extended research) vegan.

    October 26, 2009
  4. Crystal #

    Some vegans call themselves vegetarian. They may do these to avoid confusion or to avoid putting off people who think vegans are somehow not worth their attention.

    Of course, vegans are vegetarians. Often a vegan diet is referred to as a "strict vegetarian" diet.

    October 26, 2009
  5. I often say "vegetarian" when I mean "vegan". I don't think it's wrong. "Vegan" is more precise, but the word "vegetarian" is more familliar to many people. At least here I live in Norway. So I try adjusting the wording to the audience. But I think it's important, which I always do, to equate "veganism" and "strict vegetarianism".

    October 27, 2009
  6. Angus #

    The Huffington Post is beginning a series of responses to Foer's book. Here's the first one, by Natalie Portman:

    By the way, here's the OED definition of vegetarian:
    "One who lives wholly or principally upon vegetable foods; a person who on principle abstains from any form of animal food, or at least such as is obtained by the direct destruction of life."
    And a vegan is "A person who on principle abstains from all food of animal origin; a strict vegetarian."

    There is another definition given by the OED, which I rather like:
    "A. n. A supposed inhabitant of Vega. B. adj. Of or pertaining to Vega or its imaginary inhabitants.
    1951 P. ANDERSON in Galaxy Sci. Fiction Apr. 19/1 A cosmopolitan throng filled the walkways… There were other races, blue-skinned Vegans, furry Proximans, completely non-humanoid Sirians and Antarians. Ibid. 33/2, I understand you've been in the Vegan System..which nobody else in the Legion knows very much about. 1954 [see WARP n.1 8 b]. 1980 I. WATSON Gardens of Delight xxiv. 159 How much more would we regret the passing of Canopians, Vegans, Aldebarians or whomever, with all the insights they had gained? 1983 N.Y. Times 14 Aug. IV. 7/1 Evidence that the Vegan cloud is rotating would..argue strongly for its being a solar system aborning."

    October 27, 2009
  7. Thanks Mary for a fair judgement on this book. I got the same kind of disappointment the more I read and learned that there wasn't a decisive message of "rights". I hope in the end many who read will make the connections on their own.

    But for those who don't (or won't) embrace "rights", perhaps the idea that "to grasp factory farming fully is to reject it unconditionally", will necessitate a drastic shift to less consumption? If one adheres to the idea that "factory food animals" aren't an option – Unless they have a lot of disposable income, it will be expensive to maintain that "happy" standard and the same volume. Maybe this reduction will be an opportunity for them to discover how very satisfying plant based meals can be? Or will they slippery-slope it to the billions & billions served fast food joint? Either/or, they wouldn't have gone vegan anyway… without "rights".

    Eating Animals sort of reminds me of a variation of Scully's Dominion… full of the horrors, the facts, the difficult issues mixed with a bit of "pity". But overall still leaving the crux obscure.

    I'll read the book with the thought that it's just one chapter in Foer's uncompleted journey, and to better understand his POV.

    October 29, 2009
  8. nemo #

    good to see you back from your hiatus Doc. I was just about to dig into a juicy burger a few days ago and ultimately decided on some smushy bean burger. i would have been better off eating card board-heck, I would of saved $10 bucks to boot.

    Its been about 2 months since i've had a piece of meat. i'm not convinced that I am any healthier than before. As for as the ethical/moral aspect, well, that is still debatable. Just watch more of PBS and the Nature Show. You'll get a clear picture of the life cycle.

    October 29, 2009
  9. His article in the Times did a great service by exposing just how base the underlying motivation for eating animals truly is:

    "This is what we feel like eating. Yet taste, the crudest of our senses, has been exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses. Why? Why doesn’t a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to confining, killing and eating it? It’s easy to dismiss that question but hard to respond to it. Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals."

    It's a bold statement, and I appreciated that.

    October 29, 2009
  10. FYI – An unconvinced review in the NewYorker:

    Clearly the author of the post is a Pollan fan. Makes me want to read the book all the more.

    November 2, 2009
  11. Sorry to double post but I just read this interview and can't help myself because of this one line, Foer’s statement of personal conviction: “I simply cannot feel whole when so knowingly, so deliberately, forgetting.”

    November 2, 2009
  12. I second reading this review and then reading the one by Erik Marcus:

    Marcus offers nothing but praise for the book, saying:
    "In fact, had a book half this good existed fifteen years ago, there’s no way I’d have written Vegan or Meat Market: I wouldn’t have felt there was a need." and "At long last, we, and the animals, have a bestselling book that gives both veganism and conscientious omnivorism a fair hearing."

    With Marcus's clear disdain for vegan ethics, I wish he'd change the name of his website to something else.

    November 3, 2009
  13. Ivy #

    Thank you, Mary. Yours is by far the best, most honest, review of his book.

    November 4, 2009
  14. All Means Justifiable #

    Is Safran Foer a vegan?

    Here is his answer:

    November 11, 2009
  15. b #

    This summed it up nicely for me:

    November 14, 2009

Leave a Reply

You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS