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Book Review: “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer

Woman reading with dog

by Tom Roberts, volunteer

Most of us eat animals, yet how often do we ask why we eat the animals we eat and why there are some animals we don’t eat? Do we know how the meat we eat gets to the stores where we buy it? If not, should we care about the process of converting the living animal to a piece of meat? And, finally, what is in the meat besides meat?

There are a great many books and a seemingly infinite number of websites covering these topics. Johnathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” isn’t the newest book on the shelves, but it is a highly readable one. The book’s title is intended to provoke. After all, “Eating Meat” would not draw much attention. Despite having an admitted bias in favor of humane treatment of animals and making a decision not to eat meat, the author avoids sounding like an TV evangelist. While omnivores can read the book without feeling condemned, the only omnivores who are likely to read the book are those interested and willing to learn a bit about what they eat. Unfortunately, this topic makes people nervous and tends either not to be had in the first place or, if had, to make people defensive. However, if you decide to take the plunge, I think you will find it worth your time.

Why don’t we eat dogs? Societies have their taboos, and eating dogs is one of ours. You’ll get no argument from me. The author doesn’t spend a lot of time on this other than to point out that our customs (and those of others around the world who are different from us) are bound up in culture, philosophy and religion. Suffice it to say we don’t eat our pets; we do eat other animals.

Meat Safety: Am I eating meat infused with growth hormones and antibiotics? Should I worry?

Hormones: With FDA approval, the beef industry uses steroid hormone drugs to increase the growth rate. The FDA has not approved steroid hormone implants for growth purposes in pigs, poultry or dairy cows (but does allow rbGH in dairy cows, see below). http://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/SafetyHealth/ProductSafetyInformation/ucm055436.htm. Some question whether this use harms humans.

The more questionable hormone use is with dairy cattle. The FDA approves the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to increase milk production in dairy cattle. Canada and the European Union do not allow its use. The American Cancer Society reports that “evidence for potential harm to humans is inconclusive. It is not clear that drinking milk produced using rBGH significantly increases IGF-1 levels in humans or adds to the risk of developing cancer. More research is needed to help better address these concerns.” http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/othercarcinogens/athome/recombinant-bovine-growth-hormone

Antibiotics: Sub-therapeutic antibiotic use (low doses not designed nor able to treat disease) in animals to increase growth rate is standard practice. The health concern for humans is the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria that lead to drug-resistant pathogens in humans. The CDC reports that “[s]cientists around the world have provided strong evidence that antibiotic use in food animals can lead to resistant infections in humans. Studies have shown that … [a]ntibiotic use in food animals allows antibiotic-resistant bacteria to thrive while susceptible bacteria die … ” http://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/threat-report-2013/. Still, some regard the evidence as inconclusive. “Antibiotic Debate Overview,” Frontline http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/meat/safe/overview.html (website does not provide a date of publication).

We take risks when we eat. Recall the contaminated cantaloupe of a couple years ago, yet the growing of cantaloupes doesn’t usually result in contamination harmful to people. In contrast, the production of meat and dairy most always carries some risk if Jonathan Foer and some of the authorities cited above are correct.

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