I recently finished Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, and I stayed up for hours thinking about it. I read it with certain expectations about what I’d find (I had already researched animal farming pretty extensively myself) and curious to see how someone who is a novelist by trade (and not, say, a nutritionist or animal rights activist) would present the information.
I wanted to tell you that this book is meticulously researched, incredibly compassionate and thoughtful, convincing, and an engaging read. It is all of these things. But as I found myself approaching the end of the book, as the number of pages in my right hand dwindled and became thinner and thinner, and Foer still had not even once mentioned dairy farming, my respect and admiration turned to disgruntlement and disappointment.
Later I wondered why my reaction to this omission had been so violently negative. Generally I am a big believer in making small choices, in striving to make better choices more of the time, in the idea that even imperfect efforts are of significance. I will gladly cheer on any friend who has a day or even just a meal without meat. In Foer’s case, he has not only become a vegetarian, but he is also spreading the news about this cause in an incredibly convincing, approachable manner. Why was I so mad about the fact that his great case for vegetarianism did not become a great case for veganism? Maybe because it felt like something that is incredibly important to me had been forgotten, neglected, or otherwise deemed unworthy of comment.
Why had Foer left this out? It can’t be because he failed to consider it. He considers seemingly everything else: Foer not only makes the best and most thorough case against eating fish that I have ever read — he resolves a lot of the lingering questions I had even after reading several books that didn’t deal much with this topic at all — but he also gives plenty of time and thoughtful consideration to the case for small family farms and the argument of the selective omnivore (à la Michael Pollan). Foer seems like a man willing to look at all the angles. Why not this one?
It can’t be because there’s any reason why the discussion of dairy is unimportant. The atrocities he chronicles in poultry farming in the cases of both “broilers” and “layers” (eating and egg-laying chickens, respectively), fishing and “aquaculture” (fish farming), and hog farming (almost the most horrific of all) can all be found in the dairy industry and are just as nightmarish and horrific, beyond even our imagination. While Foer wrings his hands about even the most humane cattle ranchers, who still castrate and brand their cattle and necessarily send them off to the slaughterhouse, he spares not a word for their dairy cohort.
I will refrain from giving you all of the details here, though if you are curious about the diary industry, there’s more out there about it than even you or I have time to read, but here’s a starter. After reading Eating Animals, I am 100% certain that Foer was/is aware of these not insignificant issues. If he refuses to eat even the most humanely raised beef, why would he still continue to eat dairy? The only reason I can come up with is the same empty, filler “reason” given by nearly every person I know: Cheese tastes good.
If Foer avoids discussing where his cheese, milk, and butter come from, he is guilty of the same forgetting, the same neglect, against which he argues so convincingly in the book. This frustrates me, to say the least.
On the other hand, Foer is not only making a difference through his individual choice not to eat meat (and not to feed it to his son), but he is making an even bigger difference by putting this information out there. I can wholeheartedly recommend Eating Animals (while at the same time I cannot recommend eating animals) to anyone who’s curious about where the meat on their plate comes from. In fact, I can recommend the book even more strongly to those who aren’t curious about the source of their food. Maybe that’s who needs to read it most.
The book is beautifully written and presents a considered response to the issues of animal farming — both factory farming, which represents over 99% of animal farming, and the increasingly rare practice of small family farming. So go read this book, yes, and then when you’re done, go read about the dairy industry.