"This story didn't begin as a book," Safran Foer tells us.
Here lies the problem with his vegetarian polemic. It doesn't hang together. By turns, his narrative is tendentious and disturbing, opaque and revealing, sentimental and passionate. Though told with a novelist's skill, his argument is full of loose ends and contradictions. Safran Foer's exploration began with a simple objective: "I simply wanted to know – for myself and my family – what meat is."
The significant word here is family. Before recording a horrific visit to a factory farm ("it takes me several minutes before I take in how many dead [chickens] there are. Some are blood matted; some are covered in sores"), he thinks of his first-born: "He will rustle around in his crib for a few minutes... then be taken into my wife's arms, against her body, and fed." Therefore, he says, his experience in the hen house "affects me in a way that could be more easily forgotten or ignored if I weren't a father, son or grandson." It is as if nobody has ever had a child before Safran Foer.
The most powerful sections of Eating Animals are his investigations of America's vast protein factories. The Smithfield pig farming operation "produces at least as much fecal waste as the entire human population of the states of California and Texas combined." His account of the conditions in which these creatures are held is deeply distressing: "Four out of five times a sow will spend the 16 weeks of her pregnancy confined in a 'gestation crate' so small that she will not be able to turn around."
These horrors, he claims, are getting worse. "The factory hog farm is still expanding in America and worldwide growth is even more aggressive." Except it isn't – at least in the UK. Gestation crates have been banned here since 1997.
Safran Foer admits this in a tiny, tacked-on preface to the British edition, but also insists: "The techniques and outcomes are often identical to those I describe." This is questionable in scale. In the UK, 2.2 million cattle are slaughtered each year. In the US, the figure is almost 100 million. Of course, caring husbandry and humane dispatch should be essential in animal farming. After visiting two of the "kindest farmers", Safran Foer admits "it's hard not to think of them as heroes", but maintains that reform in animal farming will never overcome his objections. Deliriously immersed in paternity, Safran Foer brushes aside the fact that flesh eating has always been a part of human life.