51 pages 1 hour read

Jonathan Safran Foer

Eating Animals

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2009

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Summary and Study Guide


Eating Animals is a nonfiction book written by Jonathan Safran Foer and published originally in 2009. Foer is an accomplished novelist, and Eating Animals is his first foray into long-form nonfiction writing. The book fits into a genre of criticism of the food industry, specifically factory farming and animal welfare. Eating Animals is a New York Times bestseller, though it met with mixed reviews regarding both the content and style of Foer’s writing. In 2018, the work was adapted into a documentary film, directed by Christopher Quinn and produced by Natalie Portman, which shares the same title as Eating Animals.

Eating Animals’s main themes include: the ethical treatment of animals, the impact of animal farming on the environment, health concerns related to eating meat, and the difficulties of deciding whether to eat meat after learning more about how animals become food. Foer investigated this issue for years, beginning when his wife became pregnant with their son. The discussion is framed around balancing Foer’s own family history with food and the future Foer wants for his son. Multiple perspectives are considered in the work, including those of animal activists, ranchers, and factory farmers, all with the intention of guiding the reader to make a decision similar to Foer’s. The title has particular significance, as Eating Animals refers both to the practice of eating animals as meat and the status of humans as animals that eat.

This guide uses the 2009 edition of Eating Animals, published by Little, Brown and Company.

Content Warning: This work includes graphic descriptions of animal abuse, conditions within slaughterhouses, and testimony that includes intentional violence against animals.


The first chapter, “Storytelling,” covers contextual information that led to Foer’s investigation into the factory farming industry. He discusses how his grandmother survived the Holocaust without betraying her religious values, and how those values continue to impact Foer’s family and diet. As Foer confronts his impending fatherhood, he must consider whether he wants his son to eat meat. For himself and his wife, vegetarianism has not been a consistent trend in their lives, but Foer decides to investigate meat, farming, and vegetarianism over the course of the work.

Chapter 2, “All or Nothing or Something Else,” discusses Foer’s dog George and the general practices of eating meat that differentiate one species from another, known as the species barrier. Foer makes a brief argument in favor of eating dogs, including a recipe to cook dog meat, evoking a sense of disgust that is intended to clarify his argument regarding the species barrier. Bringing in Franz Kafka’s decision to become a vegetarian, Foer highlights the shame that accompanies the realization that meat was once a living animal, focusing on the sense of relief that Kafka had upon deciding to give up meat. In addition, Foer remarks on how many species, like seahorses, are endangered by farming and fishing methods that only indirectly impact other species.

The third chapter, “Words/Meaning,” provides a series of definitions of terms critical to Foer’s discussion, many of which include anecdotes and narratives that enhance the reader’s understanding of Foer’s position and how the term plays into his argument. Vocabulary like bycatch, Common Farming Exemptions (CFEs), and broiler chickens are explored in literal terms. Other expressions, like suffering, intelligence, and comfort food, are used to explore more nuanced topics that relate to food and animal consumption.

Foer recounts a “rescue” at a factory farm with an unnamed activist, “C,” in Chapter 4: “Hiding/Seeking,” which spurs his discussion of spreading awareness of animals’ living conditions over time. Foer presents C’s testimony, as well as the testimony of an unnamed factory farmer, and reviews, briefly, the history of human interactions with eating animals. Included in the discussion is the story of Celia Steele, who accidentally received too many chickens in 1923. The processes Celia used to maintain the larger number of chickens developed into modern factory farming.

“Influence/Speechlessness,” the fifth chapter, discusses health and safety concerns surrounding factory farming. Foer provides context on zoonotic diseases, which are transferred from animals to humans, and connects eating animals to major pandemics that have occurred in the last century. He also reviews health and sanitation concerns at factory farms, including methods of preserving and processing chickens, which can develop diseases.

In the sixth chapter, “Slices of Paradise/Pieces of Shit,” Foer explores different farms and slaughterhouses that practice varying degrees of humane methods in caring for and killing animals. He also discusses how waste management and animal confinement are detrimental to the environment, health, and animal welfare. The contrast of more ethical farms with larger factory farms is used to show how many issues in factory farming are caused by their scale.

Chapter 7, “I Do,” contains Foer’s discussions with Bill and Nicolette Niman, owners and operators of Niman Ranches, as well as with Nicolette’s friend Bruce Friedrich, a member of PETA. Nicolette is a vegetarian, though she is also a rancher, and her perspective, along with those of Bill and Bruce, inform Foer’s discussion of what it means to advocate for animal rights. Comparing the Nimans and Frank Reese, also known as the last poultry farmer, Foer concludes that vegetarianism is a good choice for him, but he remains open to the ways in which others advocate for animal welfare.

The book concludes with a second chapter titled “Storytelling,” and this eighth chapter reviews the content Foer has covered in the course of the work, viewing his own position as he prepares to host his first Thanksgiving. The debate as to whether a turkey is needed for the meal, as is tradition, forms the basis of Foer’s conclusion on how he can both involve his son in his family’s traditions and maintain a vegetarian lifestyle.