Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

To escape the factory farm. At least that’s how Jonathan Safran Foer would explain it based on his book, Eating Animals.  Using his unique style similar to Everything is Illuminated, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer investigates the process of how meat gets from the farm to our table. The impetus for this investigation was when he was deciding whether to raise his newborn son on a vegetarian diet or as an omnivore.

I can relate to Foer’s journey because it’s something I’ve done in recent years.  Since living on my own beginning in 2010, I began to look more closely at what I eat and where it comes from.  The “buy local” movement was starting to take off as well as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s becoming more well-known and established as good stores to get quality food.

But like Foer, my journey also included a religious element.  What I ate wasn’t just an economical or ecological decision it represented my relationship to God and the earth.  While Foer comes from a Jewish background and eats according to Kosher standards, my faith also has dietary guidelines such as not eating pork or shellfish.  Believing that humans as well as animals were created by a supreme being makes it difficult to consider killing a fellow created being.  However, given the dietary laws, most faiths allow a compromise.  Basically, it’s not ideal to kill animals for food, but if you’re going to do it, do it humanely and with respect.

So the idea of deciding what to eat, where to buy it, and where it comes from became a complex issue.  Even before reading his book, documentaries such as “Food, Inc.”, “Forks over Knives”, and books like Omnivore’s Dilemma were addressing the same issues.  It’s relieving to realize that you’re not alone in this journey, but it’s overwhelming to discover that what we eat, how it’s been grown/raised, and how it’s sold is decided mostly by a few select CEOs.

Foer focuses his attention on the factory farms and slaughterhouses of the meat industry (beef, fish, pork, and poultry).  He spares no punches when it comes to revealing how the animals are bred, raised, slaughtered and what these effects have on us.  It’s a tough read, but as he says in the book, it’s something we can’t ignore forever.  Frankly, some of the details I had come across before but others were startling.  It’s hard to ignore. While some will say it’s biased and inflammatory, no one who’s ever been around farm animals or who is willing to consider what Foer is saying would not argue that how our meat is raised and “processed” is unethical and unsustainable.  Whether you’re religious or not, considering the evidence and anecdotes he relates in his book, it’s hard not to take a second look at what you consume.

That’s not to say that Foer is arguing that we should all become vegetarians.  He simply is showing that how meat is produced today is not how it was prior to the 1950’s when factory farming took over the farming of our grandparents and great-grandparent’s generations.  The unethical aspect is based on the treatment of the animals and the environment in which they are forced to live.  It also includes the genetic alterations that have created breeds of chicken and turkeys that are good for only one thing-laying or being eaten.  These new breeds can’t reproduce, fight off disease, and most suffer bone and neurological issues.

The point that Foer is trying to get readers to consider is that if we are going to eat meat, we can’t continue to treat the system as we’ve allowed it.  The animals are suffering, we suffer because of the trickle down effect of antibiotics and diseases the animals give us, and the environment suffers from the carbon gases released from manure as well as the grains it takes to feed the animals.  We have to change the way meat is produced so that we can once again ethically and responsibly consume meat.

I never cooked meat at home, I mostly ate meat when I was at BBQ’s or restaurants.  Reading this book forced me to face the fact that I’m part of the equation.  Until I consider the chicken in my salad was bred to only ever end up in my salad, to be raised in inhumane conditions, and slaughtered in incomprehensible methods, I will continue to be in denial and part of the problem.

I have to change before the industry will change.  By choosing to either eat vegetarian or to only eat meat from a farm that is not related to a company, will I ever effect change.  And until more of us make similar choices will we ever gain control over our food and out of the hands of CEO’s.

So, what’s for dinner?