In 1905, novelist Upton Sinclair began publishing, in serial form, The Jungle, his expose on food safety and the mistreatment of workers in the American meatpacking industry. The book horrified the American public and set into motion a governmental response that would eventually lead to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration.
Almost a century later, Eric Schlosser's nonfiction Fast Food Nation was published, and while it didn't have the massive immediate effect of Sinclair's novel, it did bring the politics of food back to the forefront of the American consciousness. Schlosser went on to co-produce the popular documentary Food, Inc., directed by Robert Kenner, which recently earned an Oscar nomination for its investigative look at the practices of the American food industry.
While there's no doubt that many Americans might rather not know how the hamburgers and hot dogs we eat make their way to our tables, it's becoming impossible for anyone to ignore the provenance of the meat that many of us buy, cook and eat every day.
In Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment, journalist David Kirby turns his eye to one of the more controversial elements of contemporary American food production — factory farms, or "concentrated animal feeding operations" (CAFOs), which have allowed meat producers to manufacture meat more quickly, and in greater quantities, than ever before. These large-scale operations have managed, to some degree, to make meat more affordable for many consumers; Kirby wonders whether the cost to the environment — and the health of people who live near the farms — is worth it.
Kirby combines the narrative urgency of Sinclair's novel with the investigative reporting of Schlosser's book — Animal Factory is nonfiction, but reads like a thriller. He follows three somewhat accidental activists: Helen Reddout, a Washington state teacher and orchardist; Karen Hudson, a farmer's wife and engineering troubleshooter in Illinois; and Rick Dove, a Republican Vietnam veteran and fisherman who served as a "riverkeeper" in North Carolina. Each found out about the environmental and health effects of factory farms the hard way — when their respective communities were hit by illness and pollution after CAFOs opened near their homes.
Their stories, of course, are heartbreaking. Waste lagoon breaches and factory runoffs impact each community with varying degrees of seriousness. In one profoundly sad section, Kirby details the massive fish kill in Dove's beloved Neuse River, which choked the waterways with a billion dead fish. While all of the activists are able to make some headway into the regulation of factory farms in their communities, their paths are incredibly frustrating, blocked by corporate interests and a parade of indifferent, feckless or hostile politicians.
The growth of factory farming in America obviously brings up issues of animal welfare, labor and nutrition, but Kirby's focus in Animal Factory is purely how the farms are changing, perhaps irrevocably, the environments and the long-term health of the people who live near them. There's no political pleading or ideological agitprop in this book; it's remarkably fair-minded, both sober and sobering. Like Sinclair's and Schlosser's work, it has the potential to change the collective American mind about contemporary food issues. It deserves a wide audience, despite — or because of — the fact that it might be the most frightening book of the year.