Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals”: a Progressive Book Club Excerpt (Page 1)

EDITOR’S NOTE:  We are honored to launch our partnership with the Progressive Book Club with an excerpt from Jonathan Safran Foer’s first work on nonfiction: Eating Animals.  It will be followed by segments from other works selected each month from the Book Club’s inventory. 


Before visiting any farms, I spent more than a year wading through literature about eating animals: histories of agriculture, industry and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) materials, activist pamphlets, relevant philosophical works, and the numerous existing books about food that touch on the subject of meat. I frequently found myself confused. Sometimes my disorientation was the result of the slipperiness of terms like suffering, joy, and cruelty. Sometimes it seemed to be a deliberate effect. 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. Nothing could seem more “natural” than the boundary between humans and animals (see: species barrier). It happens, though, that not all cultures even have the category animal or any equivalent word in their vocabulary—the Bible, for example, lacks any word that parallels the English animal. Even by the dictionary definition, humans both are and are not animals. In the first sense, humans are members of the animal kingdom. But more often, we casually use the word animal to signify all creatures—from orangutan to dog to shrimp—except humans. Within a culture, even within a family, people have their own understandings of what an animal is. Within each of us there are probably several different understandings.

What is an animal? Anthropologist Tim Ingold posed the question to a diverse group of scholars from the disciplines of social and cultural anthropology, archaeology, biology, psychology, philosophy, and semiotics. It proved impossible for them to reach a consensus on the meaning of the word. Tellingly, though, there were two important points of agreement: “First, that there is a strong emotional undercurrent to our ideas about animality; and, second, that to subject these ideas to critical scrutiny is to expose highly sensitive and largely unexplored aspects of the understanding of our own humanity.” To ask “What is an animal?”—or, I would add, to read a child a story about a dog or to support animal rights—is inevitably to touch upon how we understand what it means to be us and not them. It is to ask, “What is a human?”

The conviction that humans are the pinnacle of evolution, the appropriate yardstick by which to measure the lives of other animals, and the rightful owners of everything that lives.

The refusal to concede significant experiential likeness between humans and the other animals, as when my son asks if George will be lonely when we leave the house without her, and I say, “George doesn’t get lonely.”

The urge to project human experience onto the other animals, as when my son asks if George will be lonely. The Italian philosopher Emanuela Cenami Spada wrote: “Anthropomorphism is a risk we must run, because we must refer to our own human experience in order to formulate questions about animal experience. . . . The only available ‘cure’ [for anthropomorphism] is the continuous critique of our working definitions in order to provide more adequate answers to our questions, and to that embarrassing problem that animals present to us.” What is that embarrassing problem? That we don’t simply project human experience onto animals; we are (and are not) animals.

Battery Cage
Is it anthropomorphism to try to imagine yourself into a farmed animal’s cage? Is it anthropodenial not to?

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 (see: processing).

Broiler Chickens
Not all chickens have to endure battery cages. In this way only, it could be said that broilers—chickens that become meat (as opposed to layers, chickens that lay eggs)—are lucky: they tend to get close to a single square foot of space.

If you aren’t a farmer, what I’ve just written probably confuses you. You probably thought that chickens were chickens. But for the past half century, there have actually been two kinds of chickens—broilers and layers—each with distinct genetics. We call them both chickens, but they have starkly different bodies and metabolisms, engineered for different “functions.” 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.)

This raises all kinds of bizarre questions—questions that before I learned about our two types of chickens, I’d never had reason to ask—like, 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). Cruel? Depends on your definition of cruelty (see: cruelty).

1) The shit of a bull (see also: environmentalism)

2) Misleading or false language and statements, such as:
Perhaps the quintessential example of bullshit, bycatch refers to sea creatures caught by accident—except not really “by accident,” since bycatch has been consciously built into contemporary fishing methods. Modern fishing tends to involve much technology and few fishers. This combination leads to massive catches with massive amounts of bycatch. Take shrimp, for example. The average shrimptrawling 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. We tend not to think about this because we tend not to know about it. What if there were labeling on our food letting us know how many animals were killed to bring our desired animal to our plate? So, with trawled shrimp from Indonesia, for example, the label might read: 26 pounds of other sea animals were killed and tossed back into the ocean for every 1 pound of this shrimp.

Or take tuna. Among the other 145 species regularly killed—gratuitously—while killing tuna are: manta ray, devil ray, spotted skate, bignose shark, copper shark, Galapagos shark, sandbar shark, night shark, sand tiger shark, (great) white shark, hammerhead shark, spurdog fish, Cuban dogfish, bigeye thresher, mako, blue shark, wahoo, sailfish, bonito, king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, longbill spearfish, white marlin, swordfish, lancet fish, grey triggerfish, needlefish, pomfret, blue runner, black ruff, dolphin fish, bigeye cigarfish, porcupine fish, rainbow runner, anchovy, grouper, flying fish, cod, common sea horse, Bermuda chub, opah, escolar, leerfish, tripletail, goosefish, monkfish, sunfish, Murray eel, pilotfish, black gemfish, stone bass, bluefish, cassava fish, red drum, greater amberjack, yellowtail, common sea bream, barracuda, puffer fish, loggerhead turtle, green turtle, leatherback turtle, hawksbill turtle, Kemp’s ridley turtle, Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross, Audouin’s gull, Balearic shearwater, black-browed albatross, great black-backed gull, great shearwater, great-winged petrel, grey petrel, herring gull, laughing gull, northern royal albatross, shy albatross, sooty shearwater, southern fulmar, Yelkouan shearwater, yellow-legged gull, minke whale, sei whale, fin whale, common dolphin, northern right whale, pilot whale, humpback whale, beaked whale, killer whale, harbor porpoise, sperm whale, striped dolphin, Atlantic spotted dolphin, spinner dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, and goose-beaked whale. 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.

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, a.k.a. factory farm. Tellingly, this formal designation was created not by the meat industry but by the Environmental Protection Agency (see also: environmentalism). All CAFOs harm animals in ways that would be illegal according to even relatively weak animal welfare legislation. Thus:

Common Farming Exemptions make legal any method of raising farmed animals so long as it is commonly practiced within the industry. In other words, farmers—corporations is the right word—have the power to define cruelty. If the industry adopts a practice—hacking off unwanted appendages with no painkillers, for example, but you can let your imagination run with this—it automatically becomes legal.

CFEs are enacted state by state and range from the disturbing to the absurd. Take Nevada. Under its CFE, the state’s welfare laws cannot be enforced to “prohibit or interfere with established methods of animal husbandry, including the raising, handling, feeding, housing, and transporting, of livestock or farm animals.”

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Lawyers David Wolfson and Mariann Sullivan, experts on the issue, explain: “Certain states exempt specific practices, rather than all customary farming practices. . . . Ohio exempts farmed animals from requirements for ‘wholesome exercise and a change of air,’ and Vermont exempts farmed animals from the section in its criminal anticruelty statute that deems it illegal to ‘tie, tether and restrain’ an animal in a manner that is ‘inhumane or detrimental to its welfare.’ One cannot help but assume that in Ohio farmed animals are denied exercise and air, and that in Vermont they are tied, tethered or restrained in a manner that is inhumane.”

Continued on page 2

Copyright © 2009 by Jonathan Safran Foer. All rights reserved. From Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Progressive Book Club
By Jonathan Safran Foer


Linda B.
Linda B8 years ago

Humans are designed to eat everything and that includes meat. Present-day North Americans eat too much food and want to pay the least amount possible for it. Our health and our conscience would benefit from eating less and eating local (where one would have a better chance of finding organic and humane farms as opposed to large, for-profit organizations).

Marishka k.
Marishka k8 years ago


gerlinde p.
gerlinde p8 years ago

good information,thankyou

Meghan C.
Meghan C8 years ago

After reading this, I'm even more inclined to read the book!

Lauren Hale
Lauren Hale8 years ago

Weird again but interesting

Teresa Mac Tavish


Jason J Green
Jason Green8 years ago

thank you for the information

Mervi R.
Mervi R8 years ago

Thank you so much for this post and shedding light on these extremely important issues!

gerold fahrer
gerold fahrer8 years ago

Deep inside we are frutarier(99%)

Chuck Roomi
Chuck Roomi8 years ago

Whoops- Signed into my wife's account- This is Sir Walk typing.