Pardon the pun, but this one is sure to ruffle a few feathers.
Though it dates back nearly seven years, the ban on the sale and production of foie gras in California has popped back into the public discourse as it has become clear that it will actually go into effect on July 1st, 2012. To recap the law in a nutshell, in 2004 the state of California passed a ban on foie gras produced as a result of gavage, the practice of force-feeding the ducks or geese large quantities of grain through a tube inserted into the birds throat 2-3 times a day for the last few weeks of their lives. This enlarges the liver of the bird up to around 8 times its normal size, mostly with fat, giving it the silky texture and rich flavor that many foodies covet.
An 8-year grace period was allowed to give foie gras farms the opportunity to come up with an alternative method for producing the fatty livers without force-feeding the animals. Well, those 8 years are almost up, and with no alternative method in sight, chefs in California have less than a year to legally serve up the delicacy.
To say that foie gras is a hot-button issue would be an understatement. It is mired in emotion, on both sides of the fence. On one side are the chefs and gastronomes who celebrate the deliciousness of the end result. On the other are the always-passionate animal rights groups who insist that any form of gavage is cruel and unusual, and should be outlawed and protested.
Now would probably be a good time to let you know where I stand. I unquestionably and unapologetically love foie gras. It is fantastic. Without fail, if it is on a menu when I’m at a restaurant, I’ll order it. Granted, the foodie singing foie gras’ praises may be approaching the same level of cliche as putting truffle on everything – which I also not so secretly love – but hipster-ish fear of seeming uncool will never trump my appreciation for a creamy torchon or a seared slice of fatty duck liver.
Granted, most of the anti-foie gras crowd didn’t make it past the title of this post before they started pasting links to horrific videos in the comment section, but maybe I can save the few of you still with me some time. I’ve seen the videos. I’ve read your literature. I’ve driven past your protests at Restaurant Eugene and seen the disturbing images of caged birds caked in ground maize with rats gnawing at their feathers. I’ll even post some of your favorite links here, here, and here.
I love animals, and not just in the stereotypically carnivorous “they’re delicious” kind of way. While I may long for the experience of crunching my way through the bones of an ortolan, the idea that the bird had its eyes poked out before it was drowned in a pool of brandy would stop me from enjoying it. I do my best not to buy shampoo that was poured into the eyes of kittens before it wound up in my hair. I think that anyone that tortures dogs for gambling and sport deserves their own special place in hell. Animal cruelty is wrong.
But killing an animal for consumption isn’t inherently cruel, and that is where I and many in the anti-foie crowd will have to agree to disagree.
What we have here is a combination of attention seeking activism and anthropomorphism. The simple mention of shoving a tube down ones throat is enough to make most of us gag. It is an easy logical jump to say, “Well that sounds horrible, those poor little things!” But this emotional reaction doesn’t account for basic anatomical differences between our throats and those in question. If you spent most of your life swallowing whole fish, along with rocks, mud, and lake-debris, the image of a metal tube in your throat wouldn’t be so jarring.
I won’t sit here and tell you that all production of foie gras is humane, nor will I accept that it is all inherently evil. The reality probably lies somewhere between the sunshine and light version of foie gras farming Anthony Bourdain saw at Hudson Valley Farms and the extreme examples trumpeted by PETA. But my money is a lot closer to the sunshine and light. As with any animal raised for slaughter, there is a certain degree of discomfort that it will endure before winding up on your plate. Just ask any pig that has been strung up and stunned before having its throat slit. Such is the carnivore’s dilemma.
In 1998, the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Animal Health published a report on foie gras production, often cited by many foie opponents. But careful reading of the report turns up little to no conclusions on the negative impacts of gavage, often settling for speculations based on admittedly inconclusive and limited research. However, the housing and handling of the animals is clearly condemned, and most of the injuries and physical trauma observed in the birds is attributed to this.
What most anti-foie gras websites fail to mention when citing Dr. DJ Alexander’s conclusion from the report that “force feeding of ducks and geese should stop” and that the production and sale of foie gras should be prohibited is that the header on this section is titled “Minority Opinion”. His assertion contradicts that of the rest of the committee, and is relegated to little more than a footnote at the end of the report.
Not every foie gras farm packs the birds in like sardines until they can barely breathe, and it is misleading to imply that they all do. Cage-free foie gras farms exist. Plenty of footage is available from industrial farms in Europe, Israel, and Canada that rightfully exposes inhumane treatment. But a stressed bird doesn’t yield top-quality foie gras, and few respectable chefs in the US actually serve product from these kinds of farms.
Most of the points made by the anti-foie gras contingency, and most of the shocking images adorning their websites and posters, have little to do with foie gras and little to do with force-feeding. They have everything to do with mass-production on commercial farms – the cramped cages, filthy living conditions, and sad little duck faces. Little wins are the foundation of a revolution. You want to get commercial meat production outlawed? Start small. Find a niche industry whose product will only be missed by a fraction of the public, with only a handful of farms in the country that lack the lobbying power of the poultry industry, and wage war. How honorable.
This next question is for the anti-foie advocates that actually eat any meat, so this won’t resonate with the vegans out there. Have you ever purchased Purdue or Tyson chicken from your local super market? Ever eaten a fast food burger? Then you are endorsing much worse “injustices” against animal kind than I am when I savor a terrine of foie gras.
I’m not one to go off on “freedom” rants, but I hope that I never see the day when I’m not allowed to decide for myself if eating foie gras is worth it. And I hope that California follows in Chicago’s footsteps and gets out from under this oppressive ban.
I doubt that the “meat is murder” crowd were fans of mine before this post, and I’m sure I have not converted any of them today. But for those of you that aren’t quite sure where you stand on the issue of foie gras, do yourselves a favor: Do the research and decide for yourself. Consider the source. Don’t just read the Sonoma Foie Gras website, and don’t just look at a few videos on stopgavage.com.
And, if after that, you still aren’t sure, go buy a lobe of Grade-A foie gras, drizzle it with some balsamic glaze or caramelized apples, and let your taste buds decide. I’m pretty sure I know who will win.
- By Jon Watson, Food & More blog