After picking up my grandson from school, I often go through the McDonald’s drive-through so he can order a McChicken sandwich. Recently at a Rays game, I had chicken tenders and pulled pork nachos. Tonight for dinner there’s rotisserie chicken from Publix. Soon I’ll have my weekly bacon fix with my Waffle House breakfast. Later this week, maybe General Tso chicken from my favorite Chinese take-out. Sonny’s ribs are always good for the weekend. Chicken. Beef. Pork. Chicken. Beef. Pork. On and on the processed carnivorous treadmill goes.
After this documentary, Eating Animals, maybe not so much. And just in time for our summer celebrations centered around grilling slabs of meat.
Ironically, while viewing this film as an at-home screener on my computer, there were occasional pop up ads touting coupons for Boston Market chicken pot pies and Pizza Hut home deliveries of pizzas with sausage and pepperoni toppings. We cannot escape the steady drumbeat of pressure to eat meat — and to eat it often. Even as I watched factory-farmed chickens so fattened with hormones that they could not walk, warehoused pigs splashing in their own excrement, and diseased fish caught in rivers where retaining ponds had leaked fecal marinade, I also was bombarded by glitzy, glossy ads for food so far removed from the reality of the assembly-line farm and slaughterhouse as to be unrecognizable. And that’s part of the corporate plan.
In a nutshell, that’s the perennial conflict between our lust for meat and the industrial efforts to meet those needs. Pure and simple, the steep cost of cheap and convenient eggs, meat and dairy results in the inhumane exploitation of animals and toxic pollution of our environment.
This documentary wants to open our eyes and offer a better way. It’s based on the best-selling memoir by Jonathan Safran Foer by the same title, narrated by co-producer Natalie Portman, and directed by Christopher Quinn. Quinn comments that in translating Foer’s book to cinema, he hoped to reach both the most avid meat-eater and the most partisan animal rights activist, and all those in between, to tell the story of industrial farming and our relationship to animals. He even explores what it means to be human. That’s a lot to expect from a 90 minute film.
The film is not advocating vegetarianism, even one that includes "Beyond Meat" products that simulate the taste and texture of meat. Even Meatless Mondays may be unrealistic. But Quinn and his film do make the same case that journalist-anthropologist-foodie Michael Pollan advocates; that is, less meat, more humane treatment of the animals we do eat, and, as much as possible, a return to a plant-based diet for our protein.
It’s a compelling, appalling, eye-opening film, and occasionally revolting in its undercover photography of distended and diseased animals. And it’s revolutionary, too, in its proposed alternatives to thwart the industrialization of our food supply, even as we realize that 99 percent of all animals we eat in the US come from factory farms. It joins other recent documentaries about our food and the challenge of meat to our bodies and to our world, films such as Fast Food Nation, Super Size Me, Forks Over Knives and Food, Inc.
Do things ever change? Or do we keep making the same film over and over, even while the world we’ve fed for millennia sinks into a hormone-injected, antibiotic-infested, chemical-ingested, disease-infected food supply?
What is this better way that Foer and others are advocating? How is it achieved as we come to understand that ethical farming is both an animal rights issue and a constant concern that affects every aspect of our lives? When we learn that over 80 percent of antibiotics manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry are used for factory farms, and when we see the statistics that show factory farms are responsible for much of the world’s water pollution and climate change, then we need a revolution. It’s a shock to hear that healthy turkeys require no drugs, only sick, mutated ones do. It’s a shock to hear that animals we eat are genetically altered so they are incapable of sexual reproduction, thus are artificially inseminated. It's a shock to learn that there are Ag Gag laws in place throughout the country that make it a felony to take aerial or road-level photographs of factory farms.
The film is the story of a few men and their coming-to-Jesus moments with their agricultural careers. Frank Reese is a Kansas turkey farmer working to restore vintage breeds. Craig Watts became a top producer for Perdue till consumed by over $500,000 in debt. Jim Keen is a USDA scientist-cum-whistle-blower. Rick Dove works to uncover the origin of those Pepto-Bismol pink lagoons in the North Carolina countryside. Bill Niman, cattle rancher, is a happy farmer with happy pigs. The film features cameo appearances from livestock biologist/psychologist Temple Grandin who weighs in on the ethical treatment of animals.
These are not people who want to destroy our steaks, ribs and wings.
They want us to have our meat, and eat it too, but in a more humane, sustained and transparent process.
It’s a beautiful documentary even as it shows the hideous ugliness from the way we treat animals to the way we abuse the land and water. Both Mott Hupfel, Director of Photography, and Daniel Hart, Composer, imbue this film with poetry and poignance that compel us to look and listen even when we want to retch and turn away. One moment we are gliding along an idyllic and bucolic country road, till the camera rises and we take in a high density feed lot filled with thousands of cattle.
Is there anything new here? Probably not. But it doesn’t hurt to see and hear it again. We must do better when it comes to our food. Our relationship with animals we eat doesn’t have to be defined by Chicken McNugget or Col. Sanders. More than once in this film I thought of that classic Twilight Zone episode where aliens visited us from space, carrying a book titled To Serve Man. We thought it was their intention to assist us, but turns out we were fooled. It's a cookbook. Likewise, we might think at first that our industrialized food supply is serving man, but in fact, it's a ready-made plan to destroy us from within.
Though the meat industry has done a superb job of separating eating meat from killing animals, this film sets out to show that we can no longer afford to disconnect the diner from the dinner.
Ben Wiley taught literature and film at St. Petersburg College. He worked in the Study Abroad Office at University of South Florida as statewide Director of the Florida Consortium/University of Cambridge (UK) International Summer Schools. His interests are in film, books, theatre, travel, literacy programs, kayaking Florida rivers. He also writes the BookStories feature in Creative Loafing Tampa. Contact him here.