Americans love animals. Forty-six million families in the
Americans also love to eat animals. This year, they will cook roughly twenty-seven billion pounds of beef, sliced from some thirty-five million cows. Additionally, they will consume roughly twenty-three billion pounds of pork, or the bodies of more than a hundred and fifteen million pigs, and thirty-eight billion pounds of poultry, some nine billion birds. Most of these creatures have been raised under conditions that are, as Americans know—or, at least, by this point have no excuse not to know—barbaric. Broiler chickens typically spend their lives in windowless sheds, packed in with upward of thirty thousand other birds and generations of accumulated waste. The ammonia fumes thrown off by their rotting excrement lead to breast blisters, leg sores, and respiratory disease. Bred to produce the maximum amount of meat in the minimum amount of time, they often become so top-heavy that they can’t support their own weight.
For pigs, conditions are little better. Shortly after birth, piglets have their tails chopped off; this discourages the bored and frustrated animals from gnawing one another’s rumps. Male piglets also have their testicles removed.
How is it that Americans, so solicitous of the animals they keep as pets, are so indifferent toward the ones they cook for dinner? This inconsistency is the subject of Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” (Little, Brown; $25.99).
Foer was just nine years old when the problem of being an “eating animal” first presented itself. One evening, his parents left him and his older brother with a babysitter and a platter of chicken. The babysitter declined to join the boys for dinner.
“You know that chicken is chicken, right?” she pointed out. Foer’s older brother sniggered. Where had their parents found this moron? But Foer was shaken. That chicken was a chicken! Why had he never thought of this before? He put down his fork. Within a few years, however, he went back to eating chickens and other animals. During high school and college, he converted to vegetarianism several more times. Finally, when he was about to become a father, Foer felt compelled to think about the issue more deeply, and, at the same time, to write about it.