In the nearly ten years since Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals debuted in book form, the cultural tide has turned even further in favor of plant-based diets. It’s fitting, then, that Foer came together again with Farm Forward, an advocacy nonprofit whose tagline is “Until no animals suffer on factory farms,” to reimagine Eating Animals as a documentary. The film is directed by Christopher Quinn and narrated and co-produced by Foer’s friend and fellow vegan activist Natalie Portman.
Where the book leaves off with Foer and his family choosing a vegan lifestyle for themselves alone, the film presents the case for society at large with an urgency to make a decision. It’s been ten years, the film seems to say. You’ve had long enough to hem and haw about this. Do something.
The film follows many of the same characters that Foer originally encountered in his book, including farmers and advocates involved at various points in the web of the American food system. Characters like Craig Watts, a Perdue-contracted chicken farmer from North Carolina, illuminate the struggle under the “Machiavellian” tournament contract system of industrial poultry production that sets its participant farmers up for crushing debt accumulation and failure. Chris Leonard, a former reporter and fellow with the New America Foundation, breaks down the myth of the yeoman farmer the viewer would love to believe that Watts represents.
“We still hold this idea in our head that there’s capitalism out there in rural America,” Leonard says. “That there’s independent farmers that rise or sink based on how well they do. What we really have now is a system that looks a lot more like a Soviet politburo system. It’s a system based on central planning, central ownership, centralized control. You’ve literally got a control room in Springdale, Arkansas where you’ve got a bunch of people typing away on computers, figuring out how many chickens are gonna be raised on a farm in the state of Georgia, or North Carolina, or Mississippi.”
That doesn’t sound like the Kansas we thought we knew. Something is not right in the heartland, the filmmakers are trying to tell us—for animals, humans, and the environment alike.
The film, as did the book, positions the technological efficiency and emotional distancing of industrial farming against the slower, more emotionally compelling traditional animal farming methods. There are scenes of graphic footage from inside a beef processing facility, where an injured cow is rolled across a warehouse floor with a forklift. But Frank Reese, a Kansas farmer raising pastured turkeys and heritage-breed chickens, is shown at the brink of tears when a farm consultant suggests that, to cut costs, he sacrifice part of his flock. The filmmakers remind the audience that animal farmers used to be allowed to have ethics and humanity as part of their business practices. Industrial agriculture took that away.
One gaping hole in the film’s critique of the system is in its failure to address the abysmal and exploitative working conditions within the meat processing and packing industry. The narration does acknowledge that jobs in slaughterhouses are some of the least desirable in the country, but when nearly 40 percent of Reese’s holiday turkey harvest was destroyed due to negligent slaughtering at a Nebraska plant, we see the blame shifted to the laborers in a slaughterhouse about to be foreclosed on by the bank.
“The employees really didn’t give a damn, and they were cutting the colons and spilling fecal material all over the meat, and the inspectors were condemning them all, and nobody really cared,” Reese says, shaking his head in dismay. The little guy takes another blow from big, heartless efficiency.
That seems a little unfair on the part of the filmmakers, when we know that the majority of the people filling these deeply undesirable jobs in meat processing are often immigrants —sometimes with work visas, but often undocumented—at the mercy of a brutal system themselves. As early as 2005, Human Rights Watch produced a report saying that about three-quarters of the meat and poultry plant labor force was Latin American, and had little to no labor protections. It’s likely that whether the Nebraska plant was closing soon or not, the employees there were under constant pressure to work as fast as possible, only meeting safety and cleanliness standards at the risk of losing their job to someone who could process more birds per minute. The film garners a lot of sympathy for the abused farmer and farm animal alike, but it regretfully ignores the many other points in the animal farming system where humans—highly vulnerable ones—are also exploited. They deserve the viewer's sympathy, too.
So what has changed in the decade since Foer’s book came out? Obama threw a Hail Mary pass in the last days of his presidency to improve the welfare standards of at least organic animal farming, but the Trump administration was quick to reverse even that much progress. The poultry industry has renewed its efforts to up the speeds of their slaughter lines to more than 175 birds per minute, although it’s most recent request was shot down by the USDA in January. The proliferation of ag-gag laws have made the industrial animal farming industry one of the riskiest places to be a whistleblower. And of course, as experts in the film note in no uncertain terms, the global population has continued to steadily increase, bringing new challenges and demands for meeting overwhelming nutritional needs.
The film, like the book, doesn’t make any firm conclusions on the best universal solution. Even though we’re rooting for the underdog small-scale traditional livestock farmers, their lives are not easy and their business model is shown to be completely untenable. Meat alternatives, presented in the narrative as the character of Beyond Meat, also don’t seem to necessarily be the right way out of this mess, although they might be an important bridge in the right direction.
Where other documentaries make clear what side of the debate you should find yourself on when the credits start rolling, Eating Animals drops the moral quandary to sit heavy in the pit of the viewer’s stomach. There’s no easy fix here, the film admits, but the viewer is at the very least empowered to stop ignoring their conscience while they try to figure it out.