Eating Animals – Jonathan Safran Foer

Keeping kosher is expensive.  We pay a premium for kosher meat.  No doubt our parents’ or grandparents’ generation paid more for kosher than non-kosher meat, but it seems like the relative difference between kosher and non-kosher meat is much higher now than it used to be.

I have always thought that the reason for this difference can be attributed to two factors:

  • • the move to a standard of Glatt kosher, and
  • • the fact that the soaking and salting of the meat is done by the processing plant rather than by the purchaser

I suspect that consumers are not complaining about paying a little bit more to avoid having to soak and salt the meat themselves, a somewhat lengthy process intended to draw the blood out of of the flesh.

The glatt standard, however, was intended to be a premium standard of kashrut, for those few who could afford the higher prices.  Glatt is a Yiddish word meaning smooth – it refers to the lungs of large animals.  If the lungs have small removable adhesions, and the lungs themselves have no punctures, the animal is kosher, but not glatt.  I have read estimates of the number of animals kosher slaughtered who were found to be glatt ranging from a low of 20% to a high of 60%.  Realize what this means … 40 – 80% of animals who have gone through the kosher slaughter process need to be sent to a non-kosher meat distributor.  This alone significantly raises the price of kosher meat.

However, the glatt standard only affects the price of beef.  The lungs of chickens and turkeys are not inspected for adhesions.  Yet, the relative price of kosher poultry has risen just as much as the relative price of kosher beef.

After reading the book Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, I am wondering if there is another reason that kosher meat is so much more expensive than non-kosher meat.

Foer makes a devastating case against factory farming methods of raising chickens and turkeys (and pigs!), as well as the meat slaughtering industry.  There are virtually no “family farms” raising poultry for consumer consumption, although most cattle ranches still raise the animals naturally and humanely.  Factory farms breed animals for a narrow set of physical characteristics aimed at producing the greatest amount of meat, artificially manipulate the environment to grow the animals as quickly as possible, and feed the animals massive amounts of antibiotics to compensate for unnaturally crowded living conditions.  Factory farmed animals are have large numbers of physical defects, are generally unhealthy, and methods of handling and transport result in a large percentage of broken bones and sores.  Their is no way to effectively dispose of all the waste produced by so many animals in such a small space – it is a major source of environmental pollution and probably diseases such as asthma, influenza, and antibiotic resistent strains of infections.

He makes the case that the large poultry producers, such as Perdue and Tyson, have used factory farming techniques to keep the prices artificially low.  The price of poultry has increased at a much slower rate than the price of any other food item.  Meat is the only thing that has become less expensive in the past generation.  This has happened only because in the calculus of how meat is priced, we are ignoring the huge cost of producing factory meat to the environment and to the health care system.

I wonder if kosher meat has actually increased in price in a natural way, rather than having been kept artificially low.

If an animal is diseased; if an animal has broken limbs; if an animal is not killed carefully and properly; it will not be kosher.  While the problems with certain kosher meat slaughter plants are well known, the case that “Eating Animals” makes against the meat industry primarily, though not exclusively, apply to the non-kosher industry.  There is a significant financial disincentive for kosher processors to mistreat the animals.

There is a larger argument in the book, though, that affects both the kosher and non-kosher meat industries.  The argument, quite simply, is that the raising of meat for food is unsustainable.  The very act of killing animals on a large enough scale to satisfy our current desire and expectation for eating meat is dehumanizing.  It cannot be done better, because it is inherently cruel and desensitizes those who engage in slaughter to the horror of the mass killing of animals.  We have destroyed so much of the genetic diversity of chicken, poultry, and pork and we have concentrated so much production is so little space and we have destroyed virtually every small animal farm, that there may be no way to roll back time, change our societal expectation of how much meat should cost, and rebuild an infrastructure of small individually run farms raising animals for slaughter at small, local, processing plants.

Foer writes that the book is not a straightforward case for vegetarianism.  It is much deeper and more complicated.  It explores the relationship between food and memory, animal flesh and forgetting.  It explores the stories we tell about ourselves by the foods we eat and don’t eat.  It explores the words we use and don’t use when speaking about our animal diet.

For vegans, vegetarians, selective vegetarians, selective meat eaters, and proud meat eaters, it is worth reading “Eating Animals.”  I have not even touched on the problems he raises with the fish/seafood industry, the egg industry, or the dairy industry.  Foer does not touch on the problems that corporate farming has raised in the non-meat farms.  The overuse of fertilizers, pesticides, genetic engineering, the reduction of genetic diversity, the patenting of plant species … we really don’t know what effect all of this is going to have on our planet, on our health and the health of the next generation.