While policymakers might feel smug about the quality of our farming compared to standards across the Atlantic, according to campaigners, every year, 80 per cent of farm animals in the EU spend their days confined in sheds, pens and even cages. And with a decision on whether to approve a planning application for a 25,000 pig mega-farm in Foston, Derbyshire, due in January 2012, the spectre of massive US-scale livestock factories in the UK looms large.
So we met with the American author whose book examining what meat is and where it comes from, was hailed by reviewers as ‘gripping’, ‘horrifying’, and ‘universally compelling’, to find out what might be in store for us.
JE: What has been the reaction to the publication of Eating Animals?
JSF: The book definitely expanded the conversation. I’m convinced the more people talk about this issue, the less meat they will eat. Obviously that’s the food industry’s assumption too, because they didn’t respond to my book at all, which only makes sense if they are afraid of people talking about this subject.
JE: How much do you think consumers are aware of the factory farming system?
JSF: A lot of people have a vague sense of the gist; most people know a video from a farm will be like a horror movie, and most probably know it’s not good for the environment. But the distance between that and knowing the details is huge. It’s not just that scary bad things happen in slaughterhouses, it’s that every one of these animals is in different ways destined for suffering in factory farms. It’s not just that it’s bad for the environment, it’s that it is the worst thing we do to the environment by a long shot. I was an example of someone who knew the gist but not the details.
JE: So what do you think needs to happen?
JSF: The image of smoking being cool, or even healthy, was pretty prevalent until recently, and now across half of a pack it says something like ‘you are about to die’. It would be great if we could achieve truthful labelling on meat, saying ‘this chicken was raised in a shed with 60,000 other chickens and fed a steady diet of antibiotics from birth until death’. It sounds funny, but why shouldn’t we have access to that information - it’s not an exaggeration it’s true! The other challenge is to find the champions of this cause who are not just vegetarians. Obama would be pretty nifty, and more celebrities, talking about it, to shift the perception.
JE: How do we encourage people to eat less meat?
JSF: We need to expand the conversation. People are sure that changing diet will be a drag, whereas moving from an SUV (sport utility vehicle) car to an electric Prius will be kind of fun and maybe even sexy. And people are also convinced a conversation about animal farming has to be an argument, has to be aggressive, depressing and uncomfortable. But it doesn’t. We’ve got so used to the idea that meat is a controversial subject but it isn’t. Vegetarianism might be controversial, but the idea that we have a broken system is something everyone would agree with if they had exposure to the realities of it.
By Kelly Parsons
Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Everything is Illuminated. Eating Animals is published by Penguin.
The meat we eat
We’ve all heard the debates raging around eating less, but better quality, meat. So why aren’t we listening?, asks Kelly Parsons.
Meat, milk and the city
A ‘food history’ walk around inner London reveals little hints that animal welfare and food safety concerns are not just a modern issue, but go back to the 19th century.
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The butcher’s banger (39)
Thin end of the veg? (39)
The Hunger Game (38)