Interview: Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer tells Rebecca Abrams how concern for his family led him to expose meat production methods

By Rebecca Abrams, March 11, 2010
Jonathan Safran Foer: “very Jewish” basis for attack on factory farming

Jonathan Safran Foer: “very Jewish” basis for attack on factory farming

The menu in the restaurant where Jonathan Safran Foer and I are due to meet in five minutes' time is causing me some anxiety. It appears to offer one vegetarian dish and 600 meat dishes, none of them remotely organic.

This menu is a symbol of everything Safran Foer deplores. It epitomises what he thinks is wrong with modern food consumption and production, a subject he has spent the past three years researching, and has just travelled half-way round the world to publicise. This menu is a certain red rag to the raging bull that is, or will be any second now, Jonathan Safran Foer.

Except that he isn't. Not at all raging, even at lengthy lists of factory-farmed meat dishes on restaurant menus. The excoriating prophet of despair, who lashes our conscience on every page of his new book, Eating Animals, doesn't blink at the provenance of the food on offer. "I don't see any point in asking waiters difficult questions," he says, equably. "It just makes people uncomfortable."

I'm sorry? Did I hear right? Isn't that exactly what he wants to do? Isn't that the whole point of his book? To make people squirm with discomfort and mend their ways? "Well, I've already said it in the book, so people can read it there if they want to," he says, mildness incarnate. "I don't think of myself as a proselytiser."

Now come off it, Jonathan. (He may be a Very Successful Author, but he's also younger than my youngest brother.) This is one of the most proselytising books I've read in years. Before I'd even finished reading it, I was so proselytised, I'd told my whole family we were never eating factory-farmed meat again. Not a proselytiser? The prophet remains unruffled. "I never, ever get into arguments with people. I don't think it works. If someone asks me why I no longer eat meat, I explain. This book is an occasion to express what I think."

Anyone familiar with Safran Foer's flamboyant, forceful, passionate prose style will feel some sympathy for my bemusement at the unshakeable calm of the author-in-person. His multi award-winning first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, published when he was just 25, was a verbal tour-de-force, quivering with energy from first page to last.

Eating Animals, his non-fiction inquiry into the food industry and the question of whether or not to eat meat, has the same tremendous momentum, driven by impassioned views forcefully stated.

It's also a very Jewish book - in its humour, its ethical concern, and its intrinsic understanding that food is about far more than the ingestion of nutrients. Food, inextricably bound up with family and identity, is how we transmit history, culture, love. He tells the story of his beloved grandmother, on the brink of starvation in eastern Europe, rejecting a Russian farmer's offer of pork, because, as she explains to her grandson many years later: "If nothing matters, there's nothing to save."

There are two questions at the heart of Eating Animals: What exactly are we doing to the animals we eat? And what are we doing to ourselves as a result?

A deeply disturbing section of the book explores how the vast amounts of antibiotics fed annually to factory-farmed livestock is breeding drug-resistant strains of bacteria. Our insatiable demand for cheap meat is driving us towards a global health catastrophe. But it is when Safran Foer turns to the question of what it does to us morally to behave with such inhumanity towards other living creatures that the book gets really Jewish.

His unsparing accounts of the grotesque treatment of factory-farmed chickens, and the routine sadism to which pigs and cattle are subjected, inevitably make one think of the Nazi death camps (an echo he says he regrets). When he describes our habitual abuse of the power we have over the creatures we eat, he implicitly invokes the figure of Adam, charged with caring for all living things.

And when he asks how many animals it is tolerable should be treated this way each week, each day - A thousand? Ten? - it is impossible not to recall Abraham haggling with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.

"There is something very biblical about the whole topic," he agrees. "It raises fundamental questions about dominion and stewardship. It's also a very practical problem. We're all eating meat as if the planet is five times as big as it is. There is no way we can raise animals humanely if we continue to eat them in the quantities we do."

The impetus for writing Eating Animals was his becoming a father. His two sons are now aged four and one. He and his wife, novelist Nicole Krauss, are raising them as vegetarians. With the infliction of pain such a central issue in the book, were there any qualms about circumcision? For a second, Safran Foer looks rattled. "We discussed it. We thought hard about it." And? "They were both circumcised… with anaesthetic."

'Eating Animals', by Jonathan Safran Foer, is published by Penguin at £20. Rebecca Abrams's latest book is 'Touching Distance' (PanMacmillan)

Last updated: 2:59pm, August 28 2014