The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter

by Peter Singer and Jim Mason

Published by Rodale

328 pages, 2006

Buy it online



Changing the World, One Stomach at a Time

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen


The Way We Eat should come with a label: "Warning, reading this book could disrupt your life." The authors hope to effect change in the way most people shop for food, and they're convincing. Never again will a reader be able to turn a blind eye to the process that produces that plastic-wrapped steak in its Styrofoam tray or that hygienically packaged bacon.

Authors Peter Singer and Jim Mason are urging readers to forego much more than just a pound of flesh, however. For most harried families today, getting food on the table at all is a challenge. What if, in addition to shopping for it and preparing it, you also had to ask questions like: are the eggs from free-range chickens? Is the beef from cattle that are killed humanely. Is the milk from cows that are allowed to keep their calves for a few months?

Singer and Mason travel the United States to track down answers and get to the beginning of the food chain. Their first strategy is to find three families willing to allow them into their homes and kitchens, to shop alongside them and to eat at their tables. They settle on a family in Arkansas whose choices mirror the typical American diet, marked by convenience and cost; a professional couple with two daughters, living in Connecticut, who try to buy organically and locally but whose ideals sometimes fall short of the time they have for errands; and lastly, in Kansas, a Vegan family with strict ethical principals.

Stage two is the tracing of the foods the families bought back through the production process to see what ethical issues arise. Not surprisingly, this proved to be time-consuming and frustrating:

We wrote to 87 corporations .... We informed each corporation of our project and asked for their assistance in ... facilitating visits to the farm or facility .... Few companies bothered to reply. So we sent follow-up letters. After all this, only 14 companies indicated that they were willing to assist us in any way.

Their findings are laced with figures and facts about how America feeds its people, and the corporations that feed on them, along with subsequent negative consequences to the environment. According to the authors, The United States, for example, with less than 5 per cent of the world's population, emits about 25 per cent of the world's greenhouse gases.

The methods undertaken and the conclusions drawn are not simplistic; the authors examine key questions fully. In spite of the fact that the long distance that food travels contributes to global warming, for example, can it still sometimes be a better choice to buy it? Should a product from Australia be imported if the livestock has been more humanely treated there? Should produce be purchased from far away if the purchase has helped farmers live sustainably in an impoverished area?

If this book motivates you to make a change in your purchases, the authors suggest that you consider the following five ethical principals:

Transparency -- the right to know how your food is produced and to be able to get this information from the producer.

Fairness -- a food price that reflects the full costs of its production and doesn't impose costs on others. (For example, a slaughterhouse that may offer cheaper meat but poisons the local streams and emits nauseous stenches that sicken neighbors.)

Humanity -- a company that doesn't inflict undue suffering on animals.

Social responsibility -- A workplace that gives its workers decent wages and working conditions.

Needs -- An end product that is natural and wholesome and doesn't exploit unaware consumers by subjecting them to experiments.

We do have the power to say no to waxed fruit, genetically modified foods, and products that are inhumanely or non-sustainably produced, but will most of us say it? Even a small vote with your dollar can make a difference, suggest the authors. Consumers can begin by avoiding purchasing eggs from battery hens, by refusing farmed fish or endangered wild fish and by buying locally wherever possible. That, at least, is a start.

Saying no to meat and poultry wouldn't be such a bad thing, either, for your health, for the planet and for the animals themselves. If people participated in or witnessed the slaughter of their food source, there would probably be very few carnivores left. While the cruel treatment of cats and dogs can bring a fine or even jail time, we treat our farm and wild animals without mercy.

While many of us wax emotional on these issues, Singer and Mason remain impassive and rational, and this is one of the book's strengths as it delivers a comprehensive and thorough look at our food choices and the consequences.

Mason, an attorney and environmentally conscious writer, has teamed up with Singer before, (in co-authoring Animal Factories). Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, was named one of the world's 100 most influential people by Time magazine in 2005.

Consider yourself warned -- The Way We Eat could influence the way you look at your food. | September 2006


Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.