Throughout the book, Foer details the commonplace animal suffering and misery in the system providing 99 percent of the meat and dairy we eat. He believes most Americans are still hazy on how bad it is and need to grasp the scope of the problem. "It's not a question of needing to change anyone's values," he said by phone last week. "It's just making certain lines of sight clear, making connections."
Foer came to his newfound advocacy upon becoming a father. He and his wife had flirted with vegetarianism, always falling off the wagon. But now that he was responsible for someone's lifetime nutrition and health, Foer got serious about food and started researching its sources.
After sending repeated requests to well-known meat companies to visit their facilities - and receiving, not a rejection, but no reply at all from anyone - Foer started looking deeper into the industry. Eventually his research led him to accompany an activist in breaking into a factory farm. What he saw and learned there helped turn him into a crusader.
As an already-celebrated author, Foer is positioned to shine a spotlight on common but little-known patterns and practices. He believes, for instance, that if more people were aware that all male chicks (around one out of every two chicks born) at big hatcheries are killed in terrible ways (including being thrown, alive, into a grinder), they would change their egg-buying habits.
But he knows not everyone who reads the book will go vegetarian.
"I think there are different respectable conclusions one can reach," he said. "What interests me most is mainstreaming the conversation in the same way environmentalism has been mainstreamed - making the question of what's at the end of our forks important, making the choice visible."
Foer noted that news since the book went to press has only bolstered his argument. A Worldwatch Institute study found animal agriculture to be a bigger contributor to greenhouse gases than all other factors combined. And new publicity about chicken feces in cow feed and veal calves being skinned alive has some looking more closely at the safety and ethics behind what they eat.
Add to that "the recent outbreaks of E. coli [two people dead, dozens sickened, half a million pounds of beef recalled], the U.K. climate chief saying that the only way to save the planet is a movement toward vegetarianism - it's an argument that's unfortunately going to get stronger with time," Foer said.
But Foer knows people rarely abandon lifelong eating habits due to intellectual information, so he offers a compromise for meat junkies: Cut way down on your consumption (factory farming exists to meet Western consumers' outsize demand for meat at every meal), and eat animal products only from sources you know.
He profiles and reprints first-person narratives from several small farmers who are bucking the corporate trend and trying to provide their animals with healthy, humane lives before
they're killed. Though in even these operations he finds trouble spots, Foer sees this as a trend worth supporting.
"Even if good [animal] farming is incredibly exceptional, to neglect it from the conversation is dishonest," Foer said. "And I'm interested in the kinds of change that are possible: It's impossible to imagine everyone in the world becoming vegetarian in this generation, but it is very possible to imagine factory farming being rejected."
Later in the conversation, Foer said he might have dismissed the everybody-vegetarian possibility "a little bit too casually" because "who'd have thought 20 years ago we'd have a black president? Or 10 or five years ago, for that matter? Some big changes come very quickly and I hope this is a big change that comes quickly."
While some animal-movement old-timers see in his proposals and optimism the naivety of a newbie, Foer is convinced that if enough eyes were opened to the facts, change would be imminent: "American values - not Democrat, not Republican, not liberal, not conservative, not urban, not rural, just American values - are so firmly antithetical to what we're doing that it can just be a matter of time before it catches up."
Whether or not Foer's right, and MTV starts running "Say No to Factory Farming" PSAs any time soon, "Eating Animals" stands as a pop-cultural landmark, destined to be the starting point for a lot of overdue conversations.
Jonathan Safran Foer will discuss his book, "Eating Animals," at 7:30 tonight at the Central Library, 1901 Vine St. The event is free. Information, 215-567-4341 or http://www.freelibrary.org.
Hear the audio interview with Jonathan Safran Foer at http://go.philly.com/foer. And chat live about the issues in the book with Vance Lehmkuhl from 1-2 p.m. today at http://go.philly.com/animalchat.