The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter
By Peter Singer & Jim Mason
Review by Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns
In The Way We Eat, attorney Jim Mason and philosopher Peter Singer team up 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.
Scientific evidence that fish feel pain is importantly presented, and in "Enter the Chicken Shed," the authors powerfully describe the brutality of the chicken industry (which produces the 6-week-old baby chickens consumers know only as "chicken") and the unspeakable pain and suffering these birds endure. In addition 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 the book - 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 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. They refer to artificially-inseminated turkeys' genitals in crude terms, and demean 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.
The Way We Eat contains 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. . . . Giving people the impression that it is virtually impossible to be vegan doesn't help animals at all" (p. 283).
Karen Davis, PhD is the author of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry; More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality; and The Holocaust and the Henmaid's Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities. She's the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. [...]