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I hope you're satisfied, Jonathan Safran Foer. I was halfway through "Eating Animals" when, on a trip to the grocery store, I noticed a good sale on pork chops. I grabbed a package, stood there a moment, then let the meat fall back into the cooler and walked away.
From now on, I will have a harder time enjoying pork chops -- or any other meat, chicken or fish, or for that matter milk, cheese or eggs -- thanks to Foer's indelible images. Such as the freshly slaughtered pig's face and nose being split down the middle, "the halves of the head peeled open like a book." Or the processed chickens left to cool en masse in water so filthy it's sometimes called "fecal soup." Or the shed filled with tens of thousands of baby turkeys, many of them blood-matted, or covered in sores, or deformed, or desiccated like dead leaves, or just plain dead.
Foer has written two critically admired novels, and "Eating Animals" is about as engaging as possible for nonfiction about factory farming and the ethics of carnivorism. He spins entertaining tales about his grandmother, his dog and the colorful characters he meets in the course of his reporting. He provides mountains of statistics without getting too dry. He's not overly preachy or doctrinaire, and sympathetically portrays a handful of folks trying, against all odds, to raise animals and process meat in small-scale, humane ways.
But the book is also horrifying, depressing, revolting and, for anyone but the strictest vegan, guilt-inducing. Almost all animal products sold today come from factory farms, Foer says, which cause enormous pollution -- "farmed animals in the United States produce 130 times as much waste as the human population," but their waste isn't treated and so tends to wind up in rivers -- as well as disease, antibiotic abuse, and of course, endless suffering. Billions of animals a year, including those marketed as "free-range" live brief, miserable lives in dark, stinking, jam-packed sheds, their bodies sickly and mutilated, then die agonizing deaths, all so that consumers can eat huge quantities of cheap meat.
I knew all that, in a vague sort of way, before reading the book, but I tried not to think much about it. Like most meat eaters, I maintained a comforting level of denial, which Foer -- an on-and-off vegetarian who was motivated to reexamine his diet when he became a father -- can appreciate.
"Perhaps in the back of our minds we already understand, without all the science I've discussed, that something terribly wrong is happening," Foer writes. "When we eat factory-farmed meat we live, literally, on tortured flesh. Increasingly, that tortured flesh is becoming our own."
Katy Read of Minneapolis has written for Salon, More, Working Mother and other publications.