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.

Longtime readers know that I really admire actress and director Natalie Portman. One reason is that she is a committed non-meat-eater, as am I. So when she wrote that Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals turned her from being vegetarian to “a vegan activist”, I had to read it.

First of all, the book made me very glad to be vegetarian. The conditions Foer describes at slaughterhouses are appalling. He documents it thoroughly, and it is tough to read even if you have never eaten meat. It is probably worse if you have. It was more viscerally disturbing than Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and that book was famously effective in introducing reforms in the meat industry. (Of course, it was a fictionalization.)

The section on the breeding of meat animals was especially good. I first became aware of this practice when I was a kid and my parents bought pet chickens. We would let them roam around our big country yard and collect the eggs when possible. Flocks of chickens are really fun to watch. They move almost as a unit, and if one gets distracted and breaks off from the group, she will panic and run back. They are funny.

Anyway, our chickens all started as normal chicks, but some grew up to be so large they couldn’t even move. These were the “meat chickens”, bred to grow big quickly and be killed. We had no idea of this when we got them, of course. My parents did their best, but these birds were sickly and died well before the rest. So, I can vouch for Foer’s point that it’s not enough to have “free range” animals, if those animals are already intrinsically unhealthy as a result of being bred for slaughter.

You might dismiss Foer (and me) as wimpy bleeding-heart types who are too idealistic to understand the cold reality that the suffering of animals is necessary to feed people. “We can’t waste time worrying about stupid animals when we need to eat”, you object.

Ok, but there is more bad news for you in Eating Animals: the conditions under which the animals are slaughtered is not just bad for the animals, it’s also disturbingly unsanitary and results in unhealthy meat. Foer suggests that many so-called “24 hour bugs” that people pick up are actually the result of eating bad meat. So, even if you don’t care about animal welfare, you might consider that the meat industry may not be doing a bang-up job on human welfare either. (Some good news: I recently heard that scientists are developing synthetic meat, which can be made without killing animals. If that works out, it could solve all these problems. But it’s a long way off.)

As far as turning vegan: the book definitely does leave you feeling sickened by the whole farming industry. The conditions of dairy cows and egg chickens is really not much better than those bred for meat. I suspect that humanely farmed dairy and egg products might not be so bad–or at least, they might not be as bad in theory, provided they are healthy animals, and not the mutant breeds. But again, Foer notes that just having a label like “free range” or “no cage” is almost meaningless–many of these animals still suffer horribly.

Another phenomenon Foer documents well is the hostile reaction he often gets from people who eat meat when they learn he doesn’t. People seem to feel that vegetarians and vegans are judging them just by existing. It makes people defensive.

(Actually, people are sensitive about dietary advice of any kind. Look at the reaction to the First Lady’s nutrition programs.)

While Foer himself definitely comes down on the side of pure vegetarianism, he does give supporters of meat produced by small family farms (as opposed to “factory farms”) a fair chance to argue for their position. I do wonder about some of his assertions concerning practices at the factory farms. If things are truly as bad as he suggests, I can’t understand how people are not dying by the thousands daily from contaminated meat.

Foer is a very good writer and–in the early chapters especially–quite witty. There are several turns of phrase that made me laugh aloud. His knack for humor disappears in the later chapters that deal with the gory details of slaughter, but it helps to ease the reader in to some very depressing stuff.

I highly recommend this book. Parts of it are sickening to read, but I think it’s always better to know the truth than remain ignorant. If you have the stomach for Eating Animals, I predict you will no longer be able to stomach eating animals.