Film and TV

Eating Animals Director Christopher Quinn Talks Turkey...and Eating Meat

Poultry farmer Frank Reese raises heritage breeds on his small Kansas farm.
Poultry farmer Frank Reese raises heritage breeds on his small Kansas farm. Still from Eating Animals
Eating Animals is a new documentary from director Christopher Quinn, based on the 2009 book of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer. The book confronts the realities of eating farmed animals in an industrialized era and the implications of deciding to eat meat. Quinn's film, produced and narrated by Natalie Portman, takes a similar look at factory farming, CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations, or what are commonly called feed lots) and industrial slaughterhouses, to expose the suffering inherent in such operations, but also looks at farmers and ranchers trying to change the system by raising livestock humanely.

Eating Animals has been screening on the film-festival circuit for the past year, but opens in Denver on Friday, July 6, at the Landmark Mayan Theatre (110 Broadway). While there are definitely challenging scenes of pigs being mistreated, deformed chickens living out their short lives in squalid, overcrowded conditions, and dairy cows hooked to almost Matrix-like milking machines with no room to move, there are also interviews with whistleblowers and activists working for change. The film probably won't turn you into a vegan, but it brings up valid points about the real costs of cheap, commodity meat and why we allow corporations to dictate how animals are treated, even when we understand the suffering caused by factory farming.

Quinn was in Denver for a private screening of Eating Animals, so we met with him to discuss the movie and the changes in his eating habits since he completed the film.

Westword: Which part of the book is the main inspiration for the movie, and how much did Jonathan Safran Foer have to do with it?

Christopher Quinn: I was approached with the film; Jonathan and Natalie decided to adapt it. I came into their world [after] they had seen a film I had done. This was a topic that was near and dear to me, but I thought, "Do we need another food documentary?"

But I read the book, and it completely changed me...and opened my eyes on a number of  levels. What I liked about Jonathan's book was that it wasn't, like a lot of other predecessors, telling you how to think, but more just offers a body of evidence that leaves the thinking up to you. That was something that really inspired me, and I hope the film encapsulates that; it doesn't wag a finger to tell you to become a vegan or a vegetarian. Having that chance to look under the hood of factory farming was too enticing for me not to do it.

click to enlarge A Tyson chicken farm, with no chickens to be seen. - STILL FROM EATING ANIMALS
A Tyson chicken farm, with no chickens to be seen.
Still from Eating Animals
One of the striking things in the movie is "ag gags" and that it's actually illegal to film in certain places. Did you encounter much of that yourself — being told to leave, being threatened? Did you ever feel threatened?

It happened a lot. When you go to these large, I don't know if you can call them farms, they're more like complexes — it's less about farmers and more about managers. And the managers, if you come around, if anyone comes around, let alone a guy with a camera, they confront you. You're really not very welcome. There's two things that go along with that. One: Why can't we see the farms where they're raising our meat and dairy? When I grew up in Virginia, I remember always stopping off at the side of the road where there were cows, being able to meet the cow, meet the farmer — and that's all kind of radically changed. And the other thing that I learned from it is that when you encounter them, a lot of these guys are generational farmers...they're just one or two generations away from a different way of farming. And you can see it on their face: They're not very happy with the situation. I have a lot of empathy with those guys. I think they were angry at me coming around, and there were some tough encounters, but at the same time I get that we all get exponentially moved in this direction and we're all not happy with it. I don't think there's any contract farmer or industrial farmer that's happy with the way animals are being raised.

Are these operations on main roads, or they off the beaten path? Are they being hidden, or do you think people know about them?

Some aren't. If you go on Route 5 toward San Francisco you'll see pretty big, what they call feed lots, where cattle are being fattened up on corn. That one's pretty hard not to notice; it's right on the highway. But there are others, like the one in the film that's in Texas, that's pretty hard to get to. I believe it's one of the largest feed lots in the world, if not the largest. It's just a massive complex of animals being...fattened up on corn to accelerate their weight so you can get more money. The industry would argue that Americans like the taste of fat, but the animals were never supposed to eat corn. Feeding them corn causes, in some cases, type 2 diabetes and puts them on an accelerated track to bad health.

Which, in the long run, they [the CAFOs] don't care about because they're raised to be slaughtered at a very young age compared to traditional farming.

Yeah, full-term our film you see a grass-fed cow that's with Bill Niman. But these [CAFO] cows just live for a few months.

Did you talk to Bill Niman before or after his company [Niman Ranch] was bought by Perdue?

Bill Niman moved out of his namesake company before that happened. So he formed BN Ranch because they were scaling up on a level on the cattle side that he wasn't happy with. And then what you see in the film is that Perdue buys Niman Ranch, the pork division. But it raises a question: What's going to happen to the 500 families [under Niman Ranch] raising pork the way we all expect pork to be raised and that give us confidence in getting pork and bacon that's at least more humane and better for the animals and better for us? Now it's being bought by one of these large corporations that's challenging the way we eat.

I just realized the irony of having this conversation in a steakhouse. [We're sitting in the lounge area of Edge Restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel.]

Oh, is this a steakhouse? I didn't even know; that's funny.

In your research in making the film, did it affect your eating choices?

Absolutely. When Jonathan and Natalie came and met me, I was an adventurous eater. I loved eating tacos in Mexico City. And I always thought I was an educated consumer, but it turned out that I really wasn't, so it turned into an unraveling of my own dietary choices. It really changed the way I eat completely. Dairy was the first to go. I went into the dry-lot dairies in California and I couldn't believe that milk — even so-called "good milk" — was all being produced in a way that animals were suffering mightily. It was a pretty quick peel-away of some of the standard things that ended up on my plate.

click to enlarge Industrial farming practices have made it difficult for small farmers like Frank Reese to make money while raising animals humanely. - STILL FROM EATING ANIMALS
Industrial farming practices have made it difficult for small farmers like Frank Reese to make money while raising animals humanely.
Still from Eating Animals
Do you still eat meat at all?

I do; I still eat meat, although I'm probably aligned more closely with [people who don't]. But I have an issue with being politicized, being called a vegan or a vegetarian. I don't know if I want to adopt that title, because I also feel that it's not what I'm after — going into that corner and casting a long stare at other people. Like Frank Reese, the turkey farmer in the film, I wouldn't have a problem eating his turkey. He's in Kansas and he grows so few of them. I don't eat turkey, or hardly ever, but...Danny Meyer had [an event] in honor of Frank and had him tour Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern and his new restaurant, Untitled, and then they celebrated Frank's work with his birds and I happily tried some turkey there and I didn't have a problem with it, but that's the last time I had turkey, and it's been several months.

It's not so much getting to a place where you have to be this or you have to be that. I think that polarized the conversation. I think it's more about attempting to try to do better. The vast majority of Americans don't want animals to suffer for what's on their plate. You can put inexpensive meat on the plate...but you also have the option to maybe just eat less of it. We're here in Denver, and Colorado just abounds with really good sources of food; you guys are lucky in a lot of ways. I know it's an expense issue, but the way I look at it is that if I'm going to eat a piece of meat, I'd rather have a smaller piece that costs more and was treated well and it's also better for me. But if you look at commodity meat, you get what you pay for. And by the way, if you add all the subsidies and the externalized health-care costs, that meat is really expensive for us, even if it comes at a cheap price when we buy it. The film — I just want it to start that conversation. I don't want people to run away and think this is the film that's going to force their habits.

Your movie reinforces the idea that even if you have Frank Reese raising poultry responsibly, the slaughterhouse is a completely separate operation and is usually set up for industrial production. Most people don't know about that supply chain.

Frank gets his turkeys, which have been out willfully doing what turkeys do — being a turkey and grubbing around and living a normal life — and they have that bad day where they get loaded up, but then they enter into that cycle that is owned and operated by the factory farm. So [Reese] has very little choice and has to go through that system — and that system is not set up for him. They either won't take him, or they charge an enormous amount for the low volume. And in the end, his birds sell for top dollar, and Martha Stewart buys them for Thanksgiving, and every turkey he raises is bought, but what comes back to him is very little. He's lucky if he makes $8 a bird for one that sells for $150 in New York City. It's a process that really works against the independent farmer.

We used to have a system where there were what they used to call meat lockers, and small slaughterhouses — there are a few of them that still exist. That was really important for people; it was when meat was really important. You took your cow to a slaughterhouse and it was a neighbor who slaughtered it for you, or you slaughtered it yourself. The industrial system has bought up or forced all of the smaller slaughterhouses to shutter, and that's a big problem.

There is a feeling of hopelessness, because some of it's not up to people who want to raise animals a certain way or people who want to eat a certain way — it's a systemic problem. Where do you see the hope?

I see the hope because there are people who really know there's something wrong. It's front-facing now — like Craig Watt, the contract farmer for Perdue, who stops and opens his doors and breaks up his contract with Perdue, as you see in the film. When that got out, when he exposed the story of how these so-called antibiotic and free-range chickens were being raised, that really skyrocketed in the newspapers and Reddit and everywhere, and people were really outraged. Walmart actually came to the company and said, "What's going on here?" Because they were getting people coming through the doors saying, "I don't want my chicken raised this way."

So people know there's something wrong with the system, and it's a system that's ultimately going to fail. That's a very important thing; it's the beginning of the end of factory farming. It can't sustain itself. But where do we go now and how do we make choices? I find it really optimistic that it's starting to turn in people's heads that something's not right. I travel all around the world...and there are alternatives on the menu that just weren't there five or ten years ago, so there's change afoot.

It's easy to forget that you're an artist and a documentarian, and to confuse the movie with your own personal beliefs.

Anything I create as a documentarian, it's a personal experience. You cannot separate that. This is a perfect point: I consumed much more meat when I first started, and now I barely eat meat. And that's just my decision. It's more about here's the evidence, and where are we going now? And hopefully it leads you to just eating less meat — because we just have to. 
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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation