Friend or feast?

Thanks to journalists such as Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma), buried somewhere deep in Americans' meat-loving unconscious is the vague knowledge that the ground beef they grab from the supermarket has undergone a strenuous process of plumping, pounding, chopping and compressing — often not in that exact order — before arriving at its final package as a neat, plastic-wrapped glob of fleshy pink strings. It's nice to think that this meat comes from happy cows that, at some point, probably laughed and frolicked through green pastures with other cows. (Happy cows come from California, right?) But when it comes down to it, do consumers really know what meat is?

That's the question that novelist Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) tackles in Eating Animals, his first nonfiction work. From the beginning, you'll notice that whenever it feels that Foer is about to reach a conclusion, he resorts to the squid-like defense mechanism of gushing a cloud of rhetorical questions in his wake. His research certainly isn't groundbreaking or new, and his credentials — wait, what credentials? — as a meat expert are questionable. For Foer-lovers, the cutesy literary shenanigans and self-deprecating tone will be endearing. For Foer-haters, the writing and the writer may be annoying, but once you look past his occasional lapses into self-righteous blather, you'll see a powerful, disturbing and truly sad picture of the animals that become meat.

While most people confronted by the daunting prospect of parenthood consider things like exercising and quitting smoking for their new baby, Foer waxed philosophical and questioned his on-again, off-again flirtation with eating meat. What resulted was an in-depth investigation into factory farming: "I simply wanted to know — for myself and my family — what meat is. … Where does it come from? How is it produced? How are animals treated, and to what extent does that matter?"

It turns out that Foer's questions (and book) can be summed up by the three "S"s: stories, suffering and shit. Eating Animals begins and ends with "storytelling." The story of making meat is one of good — at least as good as it gets — versus evil. On the evil side are the large industrial farm corporations, owned by suits concerned more with money than the health of their consumers and operated by a force of sadistic perverts documented beating, sodomizing and dismembering their animals while still conscious. The evil side is portrayed as efficient, apathetic, cruel and unfortunately winning the fight in producing the country's meat. On the other side are the fallen heroes, the nearly extinct family farmers who concern themselves with the romantic ideas of preserving animal rights and keeping meat "natural" to the best of their abilities.

While much investigative journalism on industrial farming spews endless facts and statistics condemning the system, Foer uses his storytelling abilities to show the people behind the slaughter. Though Eating Animals has its share of blood and gore, Foer adds a more personal touch by including first-person accounts, from the factory farmer to the vegan who builds slaughterhouses to the vegetarian cattle rancher, on why they do what they do. Although he includes the stories of the supporters of meat, it's evident that the very idea of meat consumption makes him sick to his moral core.

The passages on suffering are enough to have you thinking twice before eating your next drumstick. The chickens that Foer describes sound like mythological creatures — with grotesquely oversized bodies too heavy for their legs, missing beaks from having them sliced off by a hot blade, pus dripping out of their pores, so genetically unsound that they are unable to reproduce — but these absurd images are all too real. They are confined to row upon row of cages that are 67 square inches — smaller than the size of the open book and too small for the birds to move around in. Often, they are dismembered or boiled alive in a broth of feces and feathers known as "fecal soup." They are just one of the factory farmer's worst-kept secrets.

Then there's the shit, both literal and metaphorical. Foer really seems to like the word "shit," as it readily describes many aspects of industrial farming. He even titles a chapter "Slices of Paradise/Pieces of Shit," which, of course, talks about shit (among other things). He also dedicates an entire chapter, "Words/Meaning," to a mini-dictionary of farming terms, complete with examples. In this section, he lists terms such as "free-range," "fresh," "organic," "bycatch" and "KFC" — all, according to Foer, synonymous with "bullshit" (see also: "factory farming"). It's cute, like his inclusion of a recipe for "Stewed Dog, Wedding Style" in the previous chapter on his Swiftian argument about eating dogs, but you get the point.

Eating Animals doesn't have a happy ending, mainly because what Foer finds, even from the good guys, does not satisfy his ethical standards. In "I Do," Foer meets Bill and Nicolette Niman, the founders of Niman Ranch — a conscientious meat processor and distributor that runs under the motto of ensuring animal welfare. Although Foer makes clear that the people at Niman Ranch have hearts, he still presents some contradictory opinions about how they run their ranch: "There could be no honest disputing that at least while grazing, those cows had it very good." Later, Foer uses dog analogies to criticize the Nimans' practices of branding and castration: Foer asks, "Would `Bill` brand his dog?" without asking, "Would Bill castrate/neuter his dog?" which is, ironically, a practice that PETA supports. Perhaps there is no good guy in all this, only those who choose to support factory farms and those who don't.

After telling his story, Foer challenges the reader to write his or her own. "We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, ‘What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?'"

Foer's book is a test of the stomach and a test of patience, but it's also a test of the human conscience. It may change the way some people look at meat, and for the meat-eater who is curious about what he is actually eating, it's a good place to start.

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