Seven years back, living in the Bay Area during California’s convulsion over restaurants serving foie gras, I found myself occasionally uttering an apostasy. “Of course, what happens to these geese is abominable,” I would hear myself conceding, at parties and in editorial meetings. “But as a matter of suffering, I have to ask: Is it demonstrably worse than what happens to the average Tyson chicken?”
My point — or, really, my vague concern — wasn’t a challenge to those who oppose the goose-stuffing torture that yields fatty, tender, highly profitable liver meat. Instead, I was worried about the prioritizing of outrage. Such attention and activism paid to a small number of birds tormented for the delectation of posh palates seemed to me to make that suffering look unique, to obscure the truth that the torture of animals destined to become meals is not at all uncommon in America. In fact, American life is fed by such cruelty. Why worry more over what a few rich want to eat rather than what so many others have to?
The creators of the new documentary Eating Animals, based loosely on a treatise by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, aren’t exposing that cruelty, exactly. It’s been exposed, again and again, in the accounts of the horrors of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations from reporters, activists, whistleblowers and the farmers themselves. Eating Animals isn’t bringing us news; it’s urging us to face what we already suspect. You don’t even need a glimpse inside the farms to suss out that something’s deeply, foully wrong: Anyone who has had to cover their nose while driving through the horizon-wide hog stink surrounding North Carolina or western Kansas factory farms already understands.
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In that sense, the film is wildly successful, stirring fury and revulsion. The filmmakers take us inside COFAs, offering a perspective that lawmakers funded by agribusiness have passed statutes to deny us. Here, by the thousands, are animals trapped in bodies that have been bioengineered to yield maximum meat and dairy but are not suitable to be lived in. Here are cows so fat they must be carried around on forklifts, their legs buckled and broken. Here are chickens that are mere puddles of flesh and feather, their feet so useless, so malnourished, that a worker can bend them back and forth like rubber. Seriously: When you order a couple of dozen wings like you’re a god-king of old demanding the slaughter of birds after some conquest, you’re scarfing down animal after animal that couldn’t even walk. Living indoors, immobile, existing just long enough to plump up to their owners’ satisfaction, these animals never build up resistances to diseases; that obliges the farmers to douse and inject them with antibiotics that then taint our food supply, all while encouraging the development of new, drug-resistant bacteria.
“They’ve calculated how close to death we can keep an animal without killing it,” Natalie Portman intones, in quietly outraged narration. Then, less convincingly, she adds that this they also have calculated “how close to destruction we can keep the environment without losing it altogether.” Her words come from Foer, and I fear that sometimes, in scraping toward poetry, they slip away from mere meaning. What evidence is there that this they have made efforts to prevent ecological catastrophe? That any of the choices they’ve made have ever valued life over profit? Consider the many sickening pink lagoons surrounding North Carolina's COFAs, fecal cesspools with slurry that is likened by one farmer here to “Pepto-Bismol.” This animal waste is dumped into pits lined only with dirt, so it inevitably leaches into rivers and streams, poisoning fish and water and the people who consume either. We’re supposed to believe that the crooks who dump that waste have taken steps to prevent worse atrocities?
Foer cares deeply for animals, but he also has a novelist’s faith in individual human decency, which can be limiting. Eating Animals brings in Temple Grandin to tout changes that the industry has made after public exposure of the conditions of animals in COFAs, and a farmer tells us, of industrialized meat, “If the public saw what it really looked like, they would stop eating it.” That’s a comforting thought, and it’s certainly true in cases where disgust and outrage overlap with some economic freedom. The filmmakers profile a farmer whose raised-the-old-fashioned-way livestock roams a sunny patch of Iowa and then gets served at restaurants in — yes! — San Francisco. But Eating Animals proves persuasive mostly in its diagnosis of what has gone wrong, and in its account of how it went wrong on such a massive scale (through thumbnail histories of KFC, Tyson and Chicken McNuggets). Its portraits of independent operators humanely raising animals don’t touch on questions of cost and access, on what it would mean for families who depend on cheap meat and fast food to go vegetarian or even free-range. (The brutal money troubles afflicting these farmers do get examined, persuasively; one calls the COFA he runs “a treadmill of debt.”)
The title suggests that, like Foer’s book. Eating Animals will interrogate the sustainability, practicality and fundamental morality of global food production and consumption. Its approach, though, is too scattershot, its arguments too dependent on what footage was acquired by the filmmakers. (Yes, as in so many lefty docs, we do get to see perturbed men who work for the powerful demanding that the documentarians’ cameras be turned off.) As a work of sustained, thoughtful inquiry, Eating Animals is a bust; as a reminder of what we should all be thinking about, though, it’s searing. After seeing it, pretending not to know is impossible.