I called my Dad this afternoon. It was late on the East Coast, but he was just getting off work. He mentioned that he’d finally gotten around to reading my blog, and then admitted that after reading it he went out and ate a cheeseburger. I wasn’t surprised; I don’t expect a couple of impassioned paragraphs to reverse fifty years of ingrained habit – although I’d like them to.

I wasn’t sure where to start with this chapter. It was full of depressing facts and figures about the poultry industry. There are 50 billion chickens on this planet, 99% of them are raised in factory farms, 100% of those are genetically modified to live and die in misery, 83% of which, according to a study by Consumer Reports, are infected with campylobacter or salmonella bacteria at the time of purchase (including organic and antibiotic free brands). According to the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, this huge population of genetically uniform, disease-ridden chickens is an ideal breeding ground for a potentially devastating cross-species pandemic.

Nobody likes to think about this stuff, myself included. Sometimes, when I sit down to write these posts, I get a queasy feeling. I feel bad for bringing up the whole messy subject. I feel bad for asking people to think about the terrifying consequences of their choices, which at this point are not immediately reversible.

This time - after hearing the sheepish defeat in my Dad’s voice, the tiredness, the seeming need to just relax and enjoy a cheeseburger or chicken nuggets without worrying about the suffering and death of the cows, the chickens and the entire human race - it really hit me. I sat at my computer, my fingers resting on the keyboard, my mind whirling.

I flipped through the chapter again, looking for something hopeful or (at the very least) ironic. Sometimes, when an issue is as heavily charged as eating animals, irony can help dispel the tension, and Foer has used it to great effect throughout the book. But here he simply and straightforwardly presents the reality of the situation, which happens to be terrifying.

I kept coming back to the same thought: the problem is so huge that no one wants to see it, and yet there’s no way around it. One way or another, we will have to face the music. Either we will choose to make change in the way we treat animals, or the effects of our actions will force change on us. The number of people who get food poisoning in the US every year (currently estimated at 76 million) will increase. The virulence of global flu pandemics and the associated deaths (conservatively predicted at 2 – 7 million) will increase. The rate of antibiotics fed to livestock (currently estimated at 24.6 million pounds annually) will increase which, in turn, will cause the rate of antibiotic resistance in humans to increase.

Over 9 billion chickens are raised in America every year. Painting a picture of the future, Foer writes, “If the world followed America’s lead, it would consume 165 billion chickens annually (even if the world population didn’t increase). And then what? Two hundred billion?” Five hundred? Will the cages stack higher or grow smaller or both? On what date will we accept the loss of antibiotics as a tool to prevent human suffering? How many days of the week will our grandchildren be ill? Where does it end?”

I sat, silently, wondering how I could get this across to my Dad. This world is an overwhelming place to live, and we routinely seek comfort in things that have none to offer. Meat, for many people, is one of those things. Not only does it not address the root cause of our anxiety, it adds to it in a big way in the long run. It occurred to me that whether or not it makes me queasy to remind friends, family, acquaintances and strangers about the consequences of their unbounded appetite for animal flesh, that’s more or less beside the point. I care about my Dad, and I want him to be healthy, happy and motivated enough in his decision to not eat meat that he makes the extra effort to find something other than a cheeseburger even when he’s tired, hungry and been on the road for hours.

I finally found my irony. Looking up at the top of the page, I noticed the title of the chapter. Foer notes that “influenza” is an Italian word that originally meant “influence,” referring to the influence of the stars. Gradually, it came to refer to a sickness that affected multiple communities at once (as though directed by occult forces). In keeping with his tendency to highlight opposing ideas, Foer titles the chapter “Influence/Speechlessness.” So, I realized, I have a choice. I can either remain speechless and let the influence of influenza spread without protest, or I can speak out and hope the influence of the truth will beat the flu to the proverbial punch.

Thanks for reading. If there’s someone you care about and want to have a good influence on, I hope you’ll send them a copy of Eating Animals, forward this post, or, if you can, invite them over for a non-pandemic-promoting yummy vegetarian dinner.