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Book Review
The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter
By Peter Singer & Jim Mason
Rodale, 2006

Review by Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

In 1980, attorney-animal advocate Jim Mason and animal liberation philosopher Peter Singer coauthored Animal Factories. Updated in 1990, the book documents the deleterious effects of factory farming on the family farm, the environment, human health and the lives of animals raised for food. In The Way We Eat, Mason and Singer team up again, this time to show how we can, and why we should, act "to reduce the harm" that our food choices inflict on animals, the environment, and other people.

The book is presented as the authors’ journey into the homes of three American families whose food choice habits and dietary ethics range from standard convenient (Tyson, Wal-Mart, fast-food) to semi-conscientious ("humanely-produced" meat, dairy and eggs) to ethical vegan (healthful, compassionate, animal-free food). They chat with pig farmers, egg producers, commercial crabbers, and others in the food industry to give readers a better idea of the origin and true cost of foods in terms of dollars and cents, animal suffering, environmental damage and human health.

They show us a free-range pig farm versus an industrialized pig farm, and visit organic and cage-free egg-laying hen operations where the hens may or may not ("not" if the eggs are labeled "cage-free") spend some time outdoors, and where they are "beak trimmed" to offset the effects of boredom and crowding and are ultimately trucked to slaughter, live markets or elsewhere after a year or two. The authors explain that "it is not possible to produce laying hens without also producing male chickens, and since these male chicks have no commercial value, they are invariably killed as soon as they have been sexed. The laying hens themselves will be killed once their rate of laying declines. In the dairy industry much the same thing happens – the male calves are killed immediately or raised for veal, and the cows are turned into hamburger long before normal old age. So rejecting the killing of animals points to a vegan, rather than a vegetarian, diet" (p. 279).

Scientific evidence that fish feel pain is importantly presented, and in "Enter the Chicken Shed," the authors powerfully describe the brutality of the "broiler" chicken industry (which produces the 6-week-old baby chickens consumers know only as "chicken") and the unspeakable pain and suffering these birds endure from birth to death. In addition to "increased mortality due to heart attacks," lameness and other manmade miseries, chickens are intentionally kept alive during the slaughter process so their hearts will continue to beat and pump out blood after their throats are cut, which is why hundreds of millions of chickens– one in every three, according to former Tyson chicken slaughterhouse worker Virgil Butler – are scalded alive at the slaughter plant. Professor John Webster of the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Medicine is quoted as saying that, in his opinion, industrialized chicken production is, "in both magnitude and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal" (p. 24).

When the book was in draft I was asked to read and offer suggestions on the chicken and egg chapters, which I gladly did with improved results, for while The Way We Eat conveys much of the cruelty of industrialized chicken and egg production, the authors empathize poorly with birds and do things like crudely referring to artificially-inseminated turkeys’ genitals as their "assholes,"* and demeaning hens’ need to dustbathe by implying that dustbathing is some sort of poorly understood female type of behavior, when in fact dustbathing is well known by scientists and others including the authors (I gave them the information, which they ignored) to be chickens’ way of maintaining healthy skin and plumage and is so essential to their welfare and sense of wellbeing that battery-caged hens will attempt to "vacuum" dustbathe on the wire floors of their cages.

In an interview about the book in the online publication Slate, Singer revealingly told the interviewer that he thinks the circle of compassionate treatment of nonhuman animals "gets gray when you get beyond mammals," and while criticizing treating nonhuman animals as "things [‘its’]," he himself refers to chickens throughout as "its" and suggests that engineering wingless chickens to fit more of them into tight confinement spaces would probably be "an improvement." (Picture the experimental research being done to accomplish this goal as well as the engineering of insentient "brainless chickens" that Singer also considers "an ethical improvement on the present system.")

Moreover, despite the overwhelming evidence that pre-slaughter electrical "stunning" of chickens, turkeys and other birds tortures them horribly, and though a major campaign by farmed-animal advocates and welfare scientists is underway to get rid of electrical "stunning" because of its excruciating cruelty, Singer blandly told Slate that "spent" hens can be killed "humanely," if you "make sure that every hen is individually stunned with an electric shock and then killed by having its [sic] throat cut" (May 8, 2006).

The Way We Eat is full of valuable information, ideas, and recommendations. However, the authors’ characterization of less industrialized, more traditional types of animal farms and farming practices as "humane" and "animal friendly" does not hold up, and one can only wonder if their skuzzy applause would be given if instead of chickens, cows, pigs, turkeys and fish, the animals were companion animals or humans.

This book is thus a long way from the animal liberation and antispeciesist philosophy associated with Peter Singer and from Jim Mason’s earlier book An Unnatural Order which criticizes traditional animal farming as the root of social injustice and human domination in the world. Still, the authors make important points, as in arguing for example that "Personal purity isn’t really the issue. Not supporting animal abuse – and persuading others not to support it – is. Giving people the impression that it is virtually impossible to be vegan doesn’t help animals at all" (p. 283).

And for those who ethically reject meat from large-scale industrial operations but are not vegetarians, a big problem the authors point out is that "When conscientious omnivores eat meat, their dietary choices are less evident. On the plate, ham from a pig who led a happy life looks very much like ham from a factory-farmed pig. Thus the eating habits of the conscientious omnivore are likely to reinforce the common view that animals are things for us to use and unlikely to influence others to reconsider what they eat" (pp. 258-58).

The Way We Eat concludes with an annotated selection of resources for more information about the issues discussed in the book including Food and Agriculture in General, Animal Agriculture, Environment, Fair Trade, Fisheries and Aquaculture, Genetically Modified Foods, :Local Farming and Sustainable Agriculture, Organic Farming, Slaughterhouse Workers, and Vegetarians and Vegans.

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*The book’s section "A Day in the Life of a Turkey Inseminator," pp. 28-29, first appeared as the cover article "In the Turkey Breeding Factory" by "Frank Observer" (Jim Mason) in the Fall-Winter issue of United Poultry Concerns’ quarterly publication Poultry Press, Vol. 4, No. 4. It’s reprinted in my book More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, pp. 84-85, published by Lantern Books in 2001. The desensitizing language was not in the original.

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United Poultry Concerns is a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. www.upc-online.org