Sunday, July 22, 2012

Meat & (Jewish) Ethics: Foer's 'Eating Animal's & A Defense of Factory Farming

Jonathan Safran Foer has published a screed in his book Eating Animals. More than that, it's an angry screed. His alarmist, overly emotional, hyperbolic, intense, indignant and adjective-strewn work is one of the the last pieces on earth that would convince me to care about the issues raised within it (factory farming, aquaculture and hog farms to name a few).

He begins the work by stating:
To be perfectly honest (and to risk losing my credibility on page 13), I assumed, before beginning my research, that I knew what I would find- not the details, but the general picture. Others made the same assumption. Almost always, when I told someone I was writing a book about 'eating animals,' they assumed, even without knowing anything about my views, that it was a case for vegetarianism. It's a telling assumption, one that implies not only that a thorough inquiry into animal agriculture would lead one away from eating meat, but that most people already know that to be the case. (What assumptions did you make upon seeing the title of this book?) 
I, too, assumed that my book about eating animals would become a straightforward case for vegetarianism. It didn't. A straightforward defense for vegetarianism is worth writing, but it's not what I've written here.  
-page 13
This sounds promising. Well, until you get to page 195, where Jonathan launches his full-scale attack against any form of meat eating. He starts off by stating "It seems to me that it's plainly wrong to eat factory-farmed pork or to feed it to one's family," continues with "for similar reasons, I wouldn't eat poultry or sea animals produced by factory methods," and then raises the question with the following given: since eating animals is "in absolutely no way absolutely necessary for my family- unlike some in the world, we have easy access to a wide variety of other foods- should we eat animals?" He decides that he can't, and goes on to explain why he won't even eat animals on farms like Paul Willis' pig farm or Frank Reese's poultry ranch. Here's Jonathan's reasoning:
Even though he does everything he can, Paul's pigs are still castrated, and still transported long distances to slaughter. And before Willis met Diane Halverson, the animal welfare expert who assisted his work with Niman Ranch from the beginning, he docked (cut off) pigs' tails, which shows that even the kindest farmers sometimes fail to think of their animals' well-being as much as they can. 
And then there's the slaughterhouse. Frank is quite candid about the problems he has getting his turkeys slaughtered in a manner that he finds acceptable, and an optimal slaughterhouse for his birds remains a work in progress for him. As far as pig slaughter goes, Paradise Locker Meats really is a kind of paradise. Because of the structuring of the meat industry, and USDA regulations, both Paul and Frank are forced to send their animals to slaughterhouses that they have only partial control over. 
Every farm, like every everything, has flaws, is subject to accidents, sometimes doesn't work as it should. Life overflows with imperfections, but some matter more than others. How imperfect must animal farming and slaughter be before they are too imperfect? Different people will draw the line in different places with regard to farms like Paul's and Frank's. People I respect draw it differently. But for me, for now- for my family now- my concerns about the reality of what meat is and has become are enough to make me give it up altogether. 
~pages 196-197
Granted, he isn't directly telling you what to do, only what he has decided to do. On the other hand, it's pretty disingenuous. After all, he's the author, and you've been following his footsteps the entire time, so if this is the conclusion he comes to, it's pretty clearly the conclusion he wants you to come to as well.

My main contention with the book, however, other than its incredibly emotional portrayal- see his statement about 'Kosher' slaughter that ends with the direful sentence 'We have no reason to believe that the kind of cruelty that was documented at Agriprocessors has been eliminated from the kosher industry. It can't be, so long as factory farming dominates' (page 69)- is that he consistently conflates humans with animals in a way that is completely different from Pollan's relatively reasoned, measured approach (granted, he is at times given to florid phrases as well). Where Pollan writes
Watching a steer force-marched up the ramp to the kill-floor door, as I have done, I have to forcibly remind myself that this is not Sean Penn in Dead Men Walking, that the scene is playing very differently in a bovine brain, from which the concept of nonexistence is thankfully absent.
Foer deliberately invites the comparison and has us imagine ourselves in the chicken's situation- to great, if misrepresented, effect. When talking about the battery cage, he writes:
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 repairmen is coming. The doors will open once, at the end of your life, for your journey to the only place worse (see: processing). 
~page 47
This comparison is useful in that it shows us the conditions under which these chickens live, but it is not useful in that it assumes that our human desires for freedom, not to have our bare feet against wire etc are the same as the chicken's desires. And while that may be true, it is not necessarily true, and thus is really not the best way of proving a point. You must explore the animal's needs based on what you know of them, not based on what you know of humans.

The only saving grace of Jonathan's book consists of the letters he published within it showcasing different viewpoints across various people- a factory farmer, an animal rights activist, a vegan who builds slaughterhouses etc. I found the defense of factory farming very interesting- and did not feel like Jonathan adequately answered the questions raised in this letter. I'm publishing the letter below. It can be found on pages 94-97 of the book.


I Am a Factory Farmer
"When people ask me what I do, I tell them I'm a retired farmer. I started milking cows when I was six. We lived in Wisconsin. My daddy had a small herd - fifty, give or take - which back then was pretty typical. I worked everyday until I left home, worked hard. I thought I'd had enough of it at that point, thought there must be a better way.  
After high school I got a degree in animal science and went to work for a poultry company. I helped service, manage, and design turkey breeder farms. Bounced around some integrated companies after that. I managed large farms, a million birds. Did disease management, flock management. Problem solving, you could say. Farming is a lot of problem solving. Now I specialize in chicken nutrition and health. I'm in agribusiness. Factory farming, some people might say, but I don't care for the term. 
It's a different world from the one I grew up in. The price of food hasn't increased in the past thirty years. In relation to all other expenses, the price of protein stayed put. In order to survive - I don't mean get rich, I men put food on your table, send your kids to school, get a new car as needed - the farmer had to produce more and more. Simple math. Like I said my daddy had fifty cows. The model now for a viable dairy farm is twelve hundred cows. That's the smallest that can stay in business. Well, a family can't milk twelve hundred cows, so you gotta get four or five employees, and each of them will have a specialized job: milking, managing illness, tending the crops. It's efficient, yeah, and you can squeeze out a living, but a lot of people became farmers because of the diversity of farm life. And that's been lost. 
Another part of what's happened in response to the economic squeeze is that you gotta make an animal that produces more of the product at a lower cost. So you breed for faster growth and improved feed conversion. As long as food continues to get cheaper and cheaper relative to everything else, the farmer has no choice but to produce food at a lower production cost, and genetically he's going to move toward an animal that accomplishes that task, which can be counter productive to its welfare. The loss is built into the system. It's assumed if you have fifty thousand broilers in a shed, thousands are going to die in the first weeks. My daddy couldn't afford to lose an animal. Now you begin by assuming you'll lose 4 percent right off the bat. 
I've told you the drawbacks because I'm trying to be up-front with you. But in fact, we've got a tremendous system. Is it perfect? No. No system is perfect. And if you find someone who tells you he has a perfect way to feed billions and billions of people, well, you should take a careful look. You hear about free range-eggs and grass-fed cattle, and all that's good. I think it's a good direction. But it ain't gonna feed the world. Never. You simply can't feed billions of people free-range eggs. And when you hear people talking about small farming as a model, I call that the Marie Antoinette syndrome: if they can't afford bread, let them eat cake. High-yield farming has allowed everyone to eat. Think about that. If we go away from it, it may improve the welfare of the animal, it may even be better for the environment, but I don't want to go back to China in 1918. I'm talking about starving people. 
Sure, you could say people should just eat less meat, but I've got news for you: people don't want to eat less meat. You can be like PETA and pretend that the world is going to wake up tomorrow and realize that they love animals and don't want to eat them anymore, but history has shown that people are perfectly capable of loving animals and eating them. It's childish, and I would even say immoral, to fantasize about a vegetarian world when were having such a hard time making this one work. 
Look, the American farmer has fed the world. He was asked to do it after World War II, and he did it. People have never had the ability to eat like they can now. Protein has been never been more affordable. My animals are protected from the elements, get all the food they need, and grow well. Animals get sick. Animals die. But what do you think happens to animals in nature? You think they die of natural causes? You think they're stunned before they're killed? Animals in nature starve to death or are ripped apart by other animals. That's how they die. 
People have no idea where food comes from anymore. It's not synthetic, it's not created in a lab, it actually has to be grown. What I hate is when consumers act as if farmers want these things, when it's consumers who tell farmers what to grow. They've wanted cheap food. We've grown it. If they want cage-free eggs, they have to pay a lot more money for them. Period. It's cheaper to produce an egg in a massive laying barn with caged hens. It's more efficient and that means it's more sustainable. Yes, I'm saying that factory farming can be more sustainable, though I know that word is often used against the industry. From China to India to Brazil, the demand for animal products is growing - and fast. Do you think family farms are going to sustain a world of ten billion? 
A friend of mine had an experiece a few years ago where two young guys came and asked if they could take some footage for a documentary about farm life. Seemed like nice guys, so he said sure. But they edited it to make it look like the birds were being abused. They said the turkeys were being raped. I know that farm. I've visited it many times, and I can tell you those turkeys were being cared for as well as they needed to survive and be productive. Things can be taken out of context. And novices don't always know what they're looking at. This business isn't always pretty, but it's a bad mistake to confuse something unpleasant with something wrong. Every kid with a video camera thinks he's a veterinary scientist, thinks he was born knowing what takes years and years to learn. I know there's a necessity to sensationalize stuff in order to motivate people, but I prefer the truth. 
In the eighties, the industry tried to communicate with animal groups, and we got burned real bad. So the turkey community decided there would be no more of it. We put up a wall, and that was the end. We don't talk, don't let people onto the farms. Standard operating procedure. PETA doesn't want to talk about farming. They want to end farming. They have absolutely no idea how the world actually works. For all I know, I'm talking to the enemy right now. 
But I believe in what I'm telling you. And it's an important story to tell, a story that's getting drowned out by the hollering of extremists. I asked you not to use my name, but I have nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing. You just have to understand there's a bigger picture here. And I've got bosses. I've gotta put food on the table, too. 
Can I make a suggestion to you? Before you rush off trying to see everything you can, educate yourself. Don't trust your eyes. Trust your head. Learn about animals, learn about farming and the economics of food, learn the history. Start at the beginning."
I found the factory farmer's letter compelling and am curious to know whether there are any books out that address the points he makes in greater depth. Does anyone know of any sources?


Anna said...

I loved the letter. Really made me think about another point of view. Thanks for sharing.

Heshy said...


Which points do you think were not adequately addressed by Foer? Was it the "you can't feed billions of people free-range"?

Anonymous said...

I tried gently in an earlier response to point out the resource allocation issue. I was once told by someone much wiser than me that if I had never gone to sleep being unable to feed my family for any period of time, I might want to hold off on judging the decisions made by someone in that situation or being sure my priorities took precedence. Thank you avi mori v'rabbi zll"hh.

She-nir'eh et nehamat Yerushalayim u-binyanah bi-mherah ve-yamenu

Joel Rich

Anonymous said...

Economics: Eliminate the billions of dollars in subsidies to the meat industry and meat-prices will go up. Ergo, less people will eat meat. If you don't believe me, look at the history of which meats have become more affordable and you will see we consume much more of it today. A good example would be chicken.

Ecology: Assuming, as you did, that the current demand for meat remains the same per person, and assuming the population increases at the same rate that it has been increasing in recent years, there will not be enough land to grow sufficient grain/corn to feed all the farm-animals.


Judgment or no judgment,free range or factory farm, the demand for meat will HAVE to diminish in the near future.

Philo said...


First, let me congratulate you on really exploring this issue, and trying to get perspective from all sides. I read 2 of Pollan's books a few years ago, and they really changed my life.

On to my main points: Yes, Foer comes on too strong. And yes, the factory farmer makes a couple of good points about the demand for meat and the inability to feed everyone through more ecologically sustainable practices. But where he totally lost me is when he tried to co-opt the term "sustainability." That's where it began to sound like propaganda.

But leaving all that aside, an individual's job isn't to figure out how to feed the world's oversized habit of meat. Moreover, even if you, I, and many others choose to eat pastured & cruelty free meat, it won't destroy the factory farming system, nor will millions of people around the world suddenly be starving. So the factory farmer's claim that there is something moral about that system because it manages to feed the world is not relevant to your responsibility as a human being, and as a Jew who has a mitzvat lo ta'asei of tza'ar ba'al chayim, not to mention the mitzvat asei of shemor et nafshecha. Our PERSONAL responsibility is to avoid meat that was essentially tortured in life, and also not to eat and to feed our children hormone laden animal products.

Also, I'm not so convinced that the factory farming system is the only way to feed the world the meat it wants (not the meat it needs, by the way - not in the quantities currently demanded.) The industrialized farming system isn't built on some magnanimous desire to be able to feed millions - it's built to maximize profits.

It's probably true that the small scale organic and grass fed operations can't feed the world as they're structured today. But that doesn't mean the monstrous torture and suffering of animals is the only alternative.

A small step is to only buy cage free eggs. In eggs, at least, there's no excuse that sustainable kosher is more expensive. Cage free eggs are the same price for kosher or non kosher consumers. I haven't bought non-cage free eggs in over 3 years. It's an extra couple of dollars, but I think it's reprehensible to buy eggs produced by hens that were tortured. They may not be human, but they can certainly suffer. A lot.

Anonymous said...

Cage-free hens are spared several severe cruelties that are inherent to battery cage systems. But it would nevertheless be a mistake to consider cage-free facilities to necessarily be "cruelty-free." Here are some of the more typical sources of animal suffering associated with both types of egg production:

Both systems typically buy their hens from hatcheries that kill the male chicks upon hatching—more than 200 million each year in the United States alone.

Both cage and cage-free hens have part of their beaks burned off, a painful mutilation.

Both cage and cage-free hens are typically slaughtered at less than two years old, far less than half their normal lifespan. They are often transported long distances to slaughter plants with no food or water.

While the vast majority of the battery and cage-free egg industry no longer uses starvation to force molt the birds, there are battery and cage-free producers alike who still use this practice.


Philo said...

I know that cage-free eggs aren't perfect. But pastured eggs are very expensive. But cage-free is still a vast improvement over the stuffing of 6-8 birds into tiny cages where they can barely move for the duration of their natural born life.

As for the killing of hens at 2 years old, it's sad, but unless you're a vegetarian, that shouldn't be any worse than the killing of chickens who are less than 6 months old for eating purposes.

A different anonymous said...

First here is a source compiled by friends and representatives of the agriculture and factory farming industries. I think it is easy to refute most (though, arguably, not all) of their claims and the critical thinker will recognize many disingenuous comments and half-truths. Furthermore many of the claims have been publicly rebutted. You be the judge.

The consensus in the scientific community today is that mammals and birds feel physical pain just like humans do. This science is on par with evolution and gravity in terms of its acceptance in the scientific community.

There are many studies proving animals suffer from depression when they lose a loved one. By all accounts, animals tend to suffer emotional or psychological pain in some scenarios where humans also would.

While there may be some anthropomorphizing by kids with video-cameras, no animal scientist has ever argued that cows and pigs do not feel pain when their tails are removed without anesthetics, that piglets do not feel pain when their testicles are removed without anesthetics, that cows need an equal amount of antibiotics whether on free-range or factory farms. No animal scientist or farmer will submit these claims about standard practices within the industry. None.

Rather, farmers will state that some painful procedures are necessary for a variety of reasons, and admit that anesthetics are too expensive. If a farmer were to give his or her animals anesthetics for painful procedures, they would go out of business because their competitors would not be giving anesthetics to animals.

The farmer Foer's book himself, quite significantly, admits to many of the problems in farming today at the beginning of his letter. He concludes "the farmer has no choice but to produce food at a lower production cost, and genetically he's going to move toward an animal that accomplishes that task, which can be counter productive to its welfare."

I agree Eating Animals is an over the top book aimed at people who are captured by descriptive language and vegetarians who are already convinced. However, the author directly quotes and cites dozens of independent animal science experts.

Moreover, the entire premise of the argument that the farming industry does not allow consumers to see their farms because they "got burned real bad" is a misnomer. Several major American factory farms now allow visitors and consumers onto their farms; other factory farms stream live video to publicly accessible websites. (see here
While the vast majority of factory farms do not allow visitors to observe anything that goes on in their farms, some do. Therefore, I disagree with the "we've been burned" excuse.

The farmer's argument about PETA's unwillingness to deal with the reality of meat-eating is not entirely true either. While it's true that PETA's ideal is that animals should never be eaten altogether, PETA has given its annual award to Dr. Temple Grandin even though the latter has designed slaughterhouses and is on the board of many corporations who buy from factory farms (McDonald's being one of them). This is because PETA recognizes that Temple Grandin cares about animal welfare (not animal rights) and tries to make slaughterhouses as humane as possible.

A different anonymous said...

Finally, here are some books by animal scientists and farmers, rather than activists and journalists. Do not expect them to defend factory farming though.

Six Modern Plagues and How We Are Causing Them by Mark Jerome Walters

City Chicks Patricia L. Foreman

How To Raise Chickens: Everything You Need To Know by Christine Heinrichs

Making Supper Safe: One Man's Quest to Learn the Truth about Food Safety by Ben Hewitt

Antibiotic Resistance: Understanding and Responding to an Emerging Crisis by Karl S. Drlica

Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat by Jeff Benedict

Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms by Nicolette Hahn Niman

Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin

Hit by a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn by
Catherine Friend

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball

(Most discussion within the industry happens in industry magazines as well as online blogs and forums such as this one

Anonymous said...

By the way, if you are confused about what the different labels on eggs mean, look at the following links.

Also, here is some news that might render this discussion entirely superfluous.

Anonymous said...


From a Jewish ethics perspective, what do you think of wearing fur?

Jason Bright said...

In response to Heshy's comment as stated: "Which points do you think were not adequately addressed by Foer? Was it the "you can't feed billions of people free-range"?

Looking at the issue of production for mass consumption we have to realize that this is in fact a supply for demand issue. People want their meat and they want it cheap. However, this has lead us to some ethical issues, namely that this mass production is not only unnecessary but harmful to human life itself. It takes 6 lbs of grain to produce 1 lbs of meat. Much of the food production in the USA is diverted from hungry mouths- i.e. cheap food is used to produce more expensive food. I don't believe that I can be an ethical and responsible member of the human race by contributing to an industry that is wholly unnecessary and damaging to our collective society. Bad industry exists to serve irresponsible people but when people become responsible industry changes.