In Everything Is Illuminated (2002), a character named Jonathan Safran Foer flabbergasts his Ukrainian guide, Alex Perchov. "I'm a vegetarian," the visiting American declares. "I do not understand," Alex replies. A dialogue of mutual incomprehension ensues: "'I don't eat meat.' 'Why not?' 'I just don't.' 'How can you not eat meat?' . . . 'I just don't. No meat.' 'Pork?' 'No.' 'Meat?' 'No meat.' 'Steak?' 'Nope.' 'Chickens?' 'No.' 'Do you eat veal?' 'Oh, God. Absolutely no veal.' 'What about sausage?' 'No sausage either.'" The starving traveler is forced to feast on two potatoes.
Eating Animals, Foer's first book of nonfiction, answers Perchov's "Why not?" with a more cogent explanation. An apologia pro diaeta sua, it begins in fond remembrance of his grandmother's chicken and carrots. Foer passed through vegetarian interludes throughout adolescence and consumed animal protein only occasionally after he married. When his son was born three years ago, he renounced meat entirely and began this book. Discomforting thoughts of a child gorging on flesh may have inspired Foer to make the nine-year-old narrator of his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), a vegan. Like Leo Tolstoy, J. M. Coetzee, Franz Kafka, and Margaret Atwood, Foer extends his empathy to nonhuman beings. "For the animals," wrote Isaac Bashevis Singer, another literary vegetarian, "it is an eternal Treblinka."
Appalled that "upwards of 99 percent of all meat eaten in this country comes from 'factory farms,'" Foer sets out to comprehend what eating animals entails in the stages leading up to consumption. He participates in a clandestine nighttime raid on an industrial turkey operation. The supervisor of a facility where fifty thousand birds share a single shed tells him: "High-yield farming has allowed everyone to eat." Foer examines the price we pay—in environmental devastation, zoonotic pathogens, food-borne toxins, and complicity in atrocity—for cheap meat. Genetically engineered for maximum yield of flesh and profit, billions of pigs, chickens, and cows annually endure torture before their wretched lives are terminated, often painfully. "The factory farm," he concludes, "has succeeded by divorcing people from their food, eliminating farmers, and ruling agriculture by corporate fiat." Eating is applied ethics, and Foer contends that we can act on our values every day by refusing meat.
He visits some remaining family farms, where animals are not debeaked, tail docked, castrated, branded, drugged, or otherwise treated as machines incapable of experiencing agony. He deplores the market forces eliminating both these farms and the few abattoirs where gratuitous cruelty is rare. In its astonishing conclusion, Eating Animals breaks with the growing chorus of philosophers, farm advocates, environmentalists, and nutritionists who advocate for a plant-based diet. Though still a devout vegan, Foer recognizes that most other Americans will continue to eat meat. So out of "the very same impulse that makes [him] personally committed to eschewing meats, eggs, and dairy," he has, through an organization he founded called Farm Forward, begun building humane slaughterhouses. The oxymoronicity would be clearer if, instead of chickens and turkeys, the objects of slaughter were dogs, chimpanzees, or humans, beings we feel more squeamish about killing. "A straightforward case for vegetarianism is worth writing," writes Foer, "but it's not what I've written here." Yet he has, though the implications of what eating animals really entails will be hard for most readers to swallow.