Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals is a carefully researched, well-balanced, and well-written book. I do, however, have to admit my bias. As a vegan who hasn’t eaten meat or any animal product knowingly for 18 years (or is it 17? Without actually counting back and checking I can never remember so let’s just say a very long time) Foer is admittedly preaching to the choir in my case. I wanted to read the book though because I wanted to know what he had to say, what his take on the matter was and how he approached the conveying of the terrible facts. I had to find out what he was saying so I could tell people to read his book or say how disappointing the book is in representing the cause. Read this book, especially if you eat animals.

Foer does not shy away from asking the big questions. Why do people eat animals? Why are some animals okay to eat and others not? For instance, what are your thoughts about eating dogs? If you cringe at the thought, why? What makes eating a dog different than eating a cow, pig, fish, chicken? All of them are animals, all of them feel pain and all of them have a sometimes surprising intelligence (did you know that fish pass on knowledge to younger generations?). Why do people who say they care about the environment and about animals continue to say it is okay to eat animals when, in the United States, about 99% of all meat comes from a factory farm (even the organic and free range varieties) where animals are kept in horrible conditions, regularly abused, pumped up with antibiotics and other drugs, and then slaughtered under conditions so inhumane that they are regularly still alive as they are being skinned or tossed into scalding vats of water.

The environmental toll of factory farming is tremendous. People who live near pig farms are constantly ill. If a person falls into a waste lagoon, they die within a few minutes. Animal waste from factory farms is not required by law to be treated like human waste is and it very often seeps into the ground and contaminates water and the surrounding area. Most, if not all the meat that comes from a factory farm is covered in fecal matter even if you can’t see it. And people who have a 24-hour stomach bug/flu are actually suffering from food poisoning.

If that isn’t threatening enough for a person’s health, there is a global disease threat because of intensive animal farming. Not only are there antibiotic resistant diseases springing up because of the drug’s use in animal farming, there is the influenza to worry about. Remember the swine flu? The virus didn’t first appear in Mexico. It first appeared in the United States on a factory pig farm. Pig flu and bird flu can and do jump species and the swine flu, if I am remembering this from the book correctly, began as a bird flu that probably jumped to a person then recombined before jumping to pigs where it recombined again and jumped back to humans. This version of the swine flu was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. It will happen again with a different recombined flu virus and next time we might not be so lucky.

Of course Foer also takes us inside animal farms and slaughterhouses. There were times while I was reading that I had a hard time holding back the tears. I wanted to skip ahead, I didn’t need to read this, I didn’t need to “see.” But I forced myself to keep reading because I wanted to know and I wanted to be able to talk about it with people who eat animals because everyone needs to know.

Foer became a dedicated vegetarian because of his research for this book and his wife and young son are also vegetarian. I’d be curious to know why he didn’t go vegan. Even though I am already on Foer’s side, he did challenge me by asking how, as someone who does not eat meat, can I sit down at a table with others who do? He suggests that even if you are vegetarian/vegan that remaining silent about the facts of eating animals implicates you in their suffering even if you don’t eat them. In a way this is true. Ever since I became vegan I have been concerned about not being one of those in-your-face people. I was, and am, uncomfortable with it but I also didn’t want to make people who eat animals uncomfortable. I have thought that being an example and politely answering questions was enough. But considering the global environmental and health impact, being silent is not enough. It’s kind of like being a nonsmoker in a room with a bunch of smokers. I may not be smoking but I am breathing in the smoke secondhand. I may not eat animals but I am affected by the conditions created by those who do.

One of my coworkers, a vegetarian, is also reading this book and we had a conversation recently about how to talk with people who eat animals about their choices. Since Foer concludes his book talking about Thanksgiving and since Thanksgiving is next week, we asked, what would happen if we sat down to a dinner that had a big turkey in the middle of the table and we started talking about the horrible life of sickness and suffering that turkey had. I don’t think we’d win any converts. In fact I think there would be a lot of resentment and anger at the dinner table. I don’t know what Foer does in his personal life with the people he knows, but writing the book was one way he says he could not be that silent vegetarian. Well, I’m not going to write a book. This post is one way to not be silent but I doubt you would keep coming back if all I ever blogged about was how horrible eating animals is. I will have to find some other way and stop worrying about making my animal eating friends uncomfortable.

I’ve gone on and it’s time to close. But I will leave you with this “food for thought:”

If we are at all serious about ending factory farming, then the absolute least we can do is stop sending checks to the absolute worst abusers. For some, the decision to eschew factory-farmed products will be easy. For others, the decision will be a hard one. To those for whom it sounds like a hard decision (I would have counted myself in this group), the ultimate question is whether it is worth the inconvenience. We know, at least, that this decision will help prevent deforestation, curb global warming, reduce pollution, save oil reserves, lessen the burden on rural America, decrease human rights abuses, improve public health, and help eliminate the most systematic animal abuse in world history. What we don’t know, though, may be just as important. How would making such a decision change us?