Movie Review: “Eating Animals”

MV5BMTUzMTM0MDc3OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDI1NjM0NTM@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_A couple years ago, I read the Jonathan Safran Foer book upon which this film is based, and at the time I wrote that it made me feel very glad to have been a vegetarian all these years.

Well, the movie also does that, and then some. It’s one thing to read about how the proverbial sausage gets made. Seeing it is stomach-churning. A word to the wise: skip the snacks before this one, or make sure you eat them all during the previews.

But Eating Animals isn’t just a glimpse into the sickening nature of the meat industry. It’s partly that, for sure, but it also explores alternatives, interviewing organic farmers and animal welfare advocates who offer other, less horrifying systems for farming.

One of the key points that the film and the book raise is the way that modern farming has corrupted the biology of the animals. What we think of as “normal” chickens aren’t where the meat comes from—instead, meat chickens are bred to be morbidly obese, barely able to walk once they reach adulthood. (I’ve seen these first-hand; it’s incredibly sad.)

And it gets worse: because modern animal farming conditions are so horrible, the animals need to be pumped full of antibiotics just to survive to adulthood. And those antibiotics end up in the meat that people eat, and in turn cause antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” to breed. 

This is really the big takeaway from Eating Animals: the modern farming system is hurting humans too. Whether it’s dumping animal waste in cesspools that drain into rivers or allowing pus from diseased cows to seep into milk, the problems with the present-day meat industry aren’t simply related to animal welfare, but ours as well.

As a film, it works pretty well, though it is a bit disjointed as it hops back and forth to tell the stories of various farmers and activists. For the most part, it’s done in a straightforward interview style, although there was one cut from a KFC commercial to the interior of a corporate chicken farm that had a darkly ironic tone worthy of a Michael Moore film.

The film makes a number of strong points about the ties between the meat industry and the U.S. government charged with regulating it. As with so many things, the lobbying interests are able to control the bureaucrats who are supposed to regulate them. 

This brings me to one question that the film never fully answered: the role of government regulation. The general theme of the film is that the huge, centralized nature of the meat industry is responsible for most of the appalling practices. (In the film, Christopher Leonard from something called “New America” likens the meat industry’s structure to the Soviet Politburo) The better alternative, the film implies, is local, organic farming—in other words, farming as it was prior to 1960 or so.

The problem here is that it would be hard for the government to regulate such small, decentralized outfits, which in turn runs the risk of food produced in a non-standardized fashion, which could very easily become contaminated. Say what you want about the current system, but it at least hasn’t caused a major pandemic yet. That might be due to pure luck, but still, I would have liked to see more of an explanation of how, exactly, the FDA or the USDA or whatever is supposed to regulate a nation of small, independent organic farmers.

This, by the way, is one of the less obvious points about political economy that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats like to acknowledge: that government and big business need each other. Government needs big business because it’s too hard to regulate (or raise money from) small business. Big business needs government because it can lay a foundation for it to maintain its monopolies or oligopolies. 

Eating Animals makes a strong case that the current, horrible system of factory farming has developed as a result of deals and organizational hierarchies devised by huge organizations, but from there, it doesn’t address how we’re supposed to get back to the “old” style of farming. After all, the fundamental factors that caused organic farming to vanish in the last half-century are still present. How do we change that?    

By the end, the film suggests that nature will change things for us—perhaps in the form of a pandemic or severe global climate change. In the meantime, the best we can do is try to think long and hard about our food choices, and choose options that are healthier and less destructive.

Watching Eating Animals was a surprising experience for me personally because of how close to home it hit—much of the film is shot in the rural Midwest, and the farms and fields look like the ones I remember from my childhood. Many of those interviewed could have been my neighbors. And, most disturbingly, some of the footage of animal cruelty came from a farm in Plain City, Ohio; a mere 20 minutes from where I grew up. (You can read about the case here—be warned; there are some disturbing pictures.) The horrible consequences of modern farming are all around; it’s just that few people bother looking for them.

After seeing an early sequence in the film showing aerial footage of cesspools outside pig farms, I decided to check online and see if they really looked like that. Sure enough, if you go on Google maps and look at the satellite images, you can see the pink-tinted pools outside the long, grey buildings that house the pigs. They’re all over the place in North Carolina.

Of course, most people know, in some vague, abstract sense, that the way their meat got made was not pretty, and frankly, most of them would just as soon remain ignorant of the details. When I recommend this movie to my meat-eating friends, most of them react by saying “I’d rather not know.” Some of them go a step further and try to justify eating meat as a hard-nosed “just-the-way-of-the-world” realism that only naïve idealists ignore. And some of them say simply “I have to eat meat.” (They assert this without ever having tried to do otherwise.)

Eating Animals isn’t arguing that everyone should abandon meat altogether. (I might argue for that—but then, I’m awfully fond of cheese and eggs, so I can’t claim total innocence in this.) But it is arguing that we need to think long and hard about the way we get our meat, and whether this system is one that can continue indefinitely without causing massive, deadly problems. And to do that, we first need to be willing to confront the current reality. There may be some nasty things in the world that are best left unexamined—the comments sections on most news articles come to mind—but this isn’t one of them.

Chances are that most people who voluntarily go to see Eating Animals are people who have read the book or who are already aware of the problem of factory farming. And that’s well and good, but it isn’t enough, because the film is most effective as a form of aversion therapy to make people reconsider what they eat. So I not only recommend that you go see it, but drag some of your carnivorous family and/or friends along as well. Say you’ll treat them to dinner afterwards—and then see if they don’t suddenly become interested in organic or vegan food.

10 Comments

  1. About 15 years ago, I read a book on the beef industry, and I gave up red meat. Haven’t touched it since. I know poultry production is no better, but in raising two boys, I wanted to make sure I gave them adequate protein, so I still cooked chicken. But now that the youngest is off to college soon, I’ll start choosing more vegetarian dishes. I could easily see myself giving up meat completely. (I never miss the red meat, and it’s much healthier to be red-meat free anyway.)

    Great review. Sounds like an important film to watch.

    1. Yes, protein is really the tricky part. I hear that beans and nuts can be good sources. I try to eat protein bars/shakes after I work out, but the prices on the vegan ones are pretty high.

      Glad you liked the review, and thanks so much for the Twitter share. Unfortunately the movie isn’t being shown too widely (I guess it’s not exactly a summer blockbuster 🙂 ) but it’s definitely worth checking out.

      1. Beans and nuts are excellent sources. I love a good vegetarian chili. I always tell my family they should be happy I’m making their colons so happy by only cooking poultry a few times a week and vegetarian meals the rest of the time. 😁

  2. I would love to give vegetarianism a try, but I just haven’t figured out how to get there. Part of it is what the rest of the family eats, part of it is that I just like meat. But, there are certainly times when I wonder about the whole thing. Like when I open a package of chicken breasts and find one that is the size of Rhode Island. I, too, have heard the stories of poultry raised in a manner that leaves them so large they can’t even move. But, I didn’t need to hear that story — just look at the size of those breasts I’m getting from the store. It disgusts me. But, yet, I keep eating meat because it is such a habitual part of my diet.

    The other thing is this … to me, it’s not just how animals are raised to feed our meat habit, it’s the entire mechanization and processing of food products that reach our shelves. So, I could go vegetarian, but I’d still be eating food that has gone through factory farms or eating food that has been processed into oblivion. Yes, there are ways to deal with those things to some extent, but … I just don’t have the time or desire to deal with all of that these days. Plus … there’s that whole family dynamic also. 😉

    1. All great points, and I can definitely relate, because I just can’t seem to kick my egg and cheese habit. And, to be quite honest, when I was a kid/teenager and my family had free-range chickens that we treated basically as pets (they all had names) I still wouldn’t eat their eggs. They didn’t taste as good. So replacing factory farming with organic, free-range farms is easier said than done.

  3. My brother once had a radio talk show. It was on a sports radio channel in Oklahoma. He has a doctorate in theology and philosophy and the radio station let him have a range of topics. For years he did well talking with guests about sport, religion and sometimes how sports and religion merge. He wasn’t going to worry Rush.
    One of his guests after a show mentioned that he needed to look into the pollution of pig farms. He did and gathered a number of experts on the subject and had what he thought was his best show. It proved to be his last.

    1. The big meat companies are very careful to keep people from finding out much about their operations. In the film, people driving by the farms (on state roads) get questioned repeatedly by farm security people. I get that they want to keep food production secure, but…

  4. The attorney I worked for turned vegan. He found Mexican food was the easiest to order in a restaurant. He just had to order only beans instead of meat and ask to leave off the cheese. To me that took out the best part.

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