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On foie gras

foie grasPardon 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

53 comments Add your comment

sansho1

September 9th, 2011
6:00 am

It is at least possible to find meat from an animal that was raised and fed in conditions largely normal to that animal. Not very likely, I admit.

sansho1

September 9th, 2011
6:07 am

And the restaurants where foie gras is on the menu are among the most likely to be serving meat raised in those normal conditions, because those conditions can yield better meat. Meanwhile, the better the foie gras, the more likely the animal was raised in abnormal conditions, whether “painful” or not.

burt

September 9th, 2011
6:59 am

@ sansho1

Your convoluted logic makes no sense. Want to try and give another go at it?

sansho1

September 9th, 2011
7:12 am

It’s called nuance, burt. You go to a nice restaurant, and the meat they serve is likely to have been the most humanely treated that you will find. But the foie gras is guaranteed to have been produced via abnormal means. This is the environment in which you will be faced with an ethical decision — that is, if ethics are a part of your decision-making.

CP

September 9th, 2011
7:25 am

http://www.petakillsanimals.com/ PETA kills 95% of all pets they “rescue,” they should focus on keeping those animals alive and finding them good homes and leave the foie gras industry alone.

Toby

September 9th, 2011
7:41 am

It should be illegal; the murder victims are conscious like young children are, the evidence is in.

Rodney

September 9th, 2011
8:03 am

“But killing an animal for consumption isn’t inherently cruel …” WOW … here I am, 7th commenter and not one rabid response to this statement. I’m shocked! :)

I said this earlier on another post (about butchering hogs) .. I don’t want to kill the animal. I don’t want to see it killed or have anything to do with it being killed.

I am all in for the eatin’ of said animal, however.

I think the force-feeding of these birds is cruel. I wish it would stop. But that won’t stop me from eating foie when I want to.

Reds

September 9th, 2011
8:16 am

I’m not a fan of foie gras, but it’s not because of the method of which it was raised. I wish there was a better alternative though. But if you put a piece of veal in front of me, you better get out of my way. I’m all for veal.

Edward

September 9th, 2011
8:40 am

I would question the hypocrisy of anyone who is a glutton for foie gras yet they most likely condemn other cultures who might think snacking on Fluffy or Rover is simply too delicious to give up.

RK

September 9th, 2011
10:13 am

What crazy Frenchmen figured out you could forcefeed a goose anyway?

“Gavage” sounds like what most Americans do to themselves. Might be a good name for an all-you-can-eat restaurant.

Typical Redneck

September 9th, 2011
11:07 am

Might be a good name for an all-you-can-eat restaurant. Now that is funny!

shaggy

September 9th, 2011
11:24 am

It tastes nasty. I would rather eat fermented cow spit. The “foodies” aka food snobs, don’t like it either. They just eat it to impress each other. Their inner voice is crying out for listerine.

1164mgc

September 9th, 2011
12:10 pm

Good post. It just gives me more proof that California is not the place for me. And I don’t even eat foie gras.

Laura Johnson

September 9th, 2011
2:30 pm

I have to wonder how these animal rights people have any knowledge of what constitutes a problem for a duck or a goose in terms of gavage feeding. Gavage is a technique used to provide food to sick birds. And, surely if it was going to be painful, that technique would not be used by veterinarians. Frankly, I do not eat foi gras, but I do not think these animal rights people have ANY business telling farmers how to treat their animals OR telling people what they can and cannot eat. Whatever happened to personal freedom? When we have know-nothings telling others how to live, what to eat, etc. then we are bordering on fascism. The animal right cultists should follow their own dreams and leave the rest of us totally alone…MYOB is the watchword for a happy society.

Deanna

September 9th, 2011
2:40 pm

You may still be able “to decide for myself if eating foie gras is worth it,” but you are prevented from buying a bottle of wine from the store on Sunday.

Muffin

September 9th, 2011
2:47 pm

Laura “MYOB is the watchword for a happy society” is about one of the most ridiculous statements i’ve ever read in my life.

AC

September 9th, 2011
3:18 pm

As a longtime vegetarian, I wouldn’t eat foie gras anyway. However, I do believe that dietary choices are personal, and no one should be required to be vegetarian or omnivorous.
The only question I have is whether or not gavage actually hurts the animal. I don’t support any practices that put the animal in poor living conditions or outright pain. If gavage causes more harm than good, then I do believe that it should be banned.

Jon Watson

September 9th, 2011
3:21 pm

@Deanna – Not for long!!

Lorenzo

September 9th, 2011
3:29 pm

We eat foie gras once a year, at Christmas. It’s a tradition and a treat. I disagree with Jon that “the foodie singing foie gras’ praises may be approaching the same level of cliche as putting truffle on everything.” Of course, we don’t sing any praises. We just eat it.

I’ll add that I’ve seen the artisanal/small-scale farm it comes from, and apart from the gavage, which I didn’t witness, the animals live in an idyllic setting that seems far better to me than the lives of industrially-raised chickens.

I don’t like the idea of telling anyone what to eat, though I believe the line is to be drawn at torture in the name of food. If dogs are raised and slaughtered humanely in Asia, I can’t let my American bias interfere with my view. I see no torture in foie gras production. Periodic discomfort, maybe. But those industrially-produced chickens sure can’t be comfortable in those tiny feces-laden cages, either.

That said, if my elected state government were to pass a foie gras ban, I’d abide by it. If I were a Californian, I’d have voiced my opinion to my elected officials.

Innocent Bystander

September 9th, 2011
3:44 pm

Carnivore and animal lover here (not mutually exclusive, imagine that!). I have never eaten foie gras and never will. It’s not a cruelty issue for me, I just don’t have any interest in it. That being said, can anyone honestly imagine that having their liver swell to 8 times its normal size in around 4 weeks would not be extraordinarily painful? Yikes!

Wino

September 9th, 2011
6:24 pm

@shaggy- if you have ever tasted foie gras, which I sincerely doubt, and didn’t like it, you need taste bud transplants. The best in the world is in Alsace, where they press the lobes in refrigeration for 48 hours, and serve with chopped aspic, cornichons and fleur du sel. If I get hit by a bus and lie in the street, you slip that in my mouth and I will die happy.

Jonathan

September 9th, 2011
7:25 pm

So the author admits that foie gras is probably not humane and then calls upon his readers to eat it. Isn’t it better to err on the side of not torturing birds?

Yes, all animals raised on factory farms experience tremendous suffering. But that doesn’t justify eating foie gras, which is made through a force feeding process that causes immense suffering. And while downplaying the pain caused by shoving a giant metal tube down the ducks’ throats, the author has little to say about how much it sucks to have a liver that has swollen to 12 times its normal size. Even migratory species of ducks (which those used for foie gras are not) only gorge enough to make their livers grow to about twice their normal size. So there’s nothing natural or normal about this.

But at least this article is good for one thing: It shows the logic acrobatics you have to do in order to justify eating foie gras.

ConcernedConsumer

September 9th, 2011
8:03 pm

The cruel and unhealthy force-feeding of birds for foie gras production has been banned in over a dozen countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Israel. The Animal Legal Defense Fund just filed a petition asking the USDA to place consumer warning labels on foie gras products. Similar to cigarette warning labels, the public has a right to know that the food they’re consuming comes from a diseased animal. Read the full petition here: http://org2.democracyinaction.org/o/5154/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=8072

Victoria

September 9th, 2011
8:55 pm

@Laura Johnson– I have to wonder if you have any compassion or empathy at all. I will “mind my own business” when there is no suffering, abuse, exploitation, cruelty or senseless deaths of sentient beings involved. You are obviously clueless. Too bad for you, animal rights activists will continue to tell farmers and the rest of the world what we think and we will do this until all of them stop inflicting pain, suffering and death on animals. Why don’t you practice what you preach and MYOB. Animal rights activists are not only never going away or shutting up, but there are more of us every day! Long live the people who fight for animal rights!

James

September 9th, 2011
10:08 pm

Great post, John. Looks like the peta nuts have finally been roused.

If only the animal rights folks knew how to construct a balanced, rational argument as you’ve done instead of resorting to inflammatory, misleading propaganda they might actually become something more than a punchline.

British Hottie

September 9th, 2011
10:35 pm

From a moral standpoint, actions that harm others are not matters of personal choice. Murder, child abuse, and cruelty to animals are all immoral. Our society now encourages meat-eating and the cruelty of factory farming, but history teaches that society also once encouraged slavery, child labor, and many other practices now universally recognized as wrong.

NB

September 10th, 2011
7:51 am

After reading the story I question how can Michael Vick be charged and sentenced for dog fighting? Animal Rights activitists up in arms and pressuring every authority involved in the case to throw Michael under the prison. Yet there are farms that can force feed geese and ducks to produce a meat product for human consumption and the animal rights activitists are not up in arms? This is so unfair. I do not condone what Michael Vick has done but lets balance the scale, Animal Rights activitists. You need to go after the farms with the same passion and force you had towards Michael.

DogLover

September 10th, 2011
11:11 am

I see the wingnut ‘AR people have found this. I occasionally breed a litter of puppies (from health-tested, champion line parents) and once had to tube-feed (gavage) two of the puppies. Perhaps some of you less than brilliant people would have preferred they died? Gavaging is OBVIOUSLY very cruel (note the sarcasm….) These birds in the wild will NATURALLY over-eat doing the same thing to their liver directly prior to migration. Oh my GOD! They are practicing animal cruelty on THEMSELVES! I think we should arrest them and send them to birdie jail!

Mary

September 10th, 2011
11:17 am

Well said, thoughtful editorial on a food I love.

Eric

September 10th, 2011
11:21 am

I am aware of animal issues, and err on the side of humane treatment when given a choice. To date, that means seeking out grass-fed beef when the option is presented and pastured chickens.

So I am not against ethical production of meat for human consumption. Gavage does not fit in this category for me. Grain is not naturally a duck’s staple diet, and certainly not in the quantity they are being fed. In a human, if your liver expanded to 8 times its normal size, you would certainly feel health consequences. The difference is, you can communicate that to other people; these ducks cannot.

Hence, I do not believe there is any ethical production of foie gras, and have chosen not to consume it. One of the early signs of serial-killer like behavior in children is made present when they abuse animals as a matter of practice. The Columbine assailants started by abusing animals (burning and skinning alive) for their own personal enjoyment. What does it say about a society that institutionalizes the abuse of animals simply to get more enjoyment from the flavor?

While that is a stretch in literal terms, we have to ask ourselves if this is really the relationship we want to have with our food and other living beings on the planet. Rich creamy texture through animal abuse and unnatural force feeding.

I don’t buy it, and I don’t think we as a society should either when alternate food sources are so plentiful.

Dumb debate

September 10th, 2011
11:26 am

I love foie gras and will eat it at every meal if possible. I didn’t climb to the top of the food chain to eat hummus.

kmb

September 10th, 2011
11:29 am

“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.”

There’s the answer. If an ethical way of creating foie gras was feasible, it would be in production already. Foie gras and veal are extreme examples of how not to produce meat for consumption. By the way, I am very much a carnivore but don’t touch either of them.

USMC

September 10th, 2011
11:30 am

These same ANTI-foie gras MORONS are PRO-ABORTION; the killing of human babies.

Go Figure!

kmb

September 10th, 2011
12:05 pm

@USMC

Read Leviticus. The Bible very clearly instructs mankind to treat animals for consumption in an humane fashion and how precisely to slaughter them. Torturing animals is not approved anywhere in the Bible.

Wino

September 10th, 2011
12:57 pm

I love it. The AR nutbags have compared foie gras production to slavery, child abuse, abortion and the Columbine killer. Come on guys! You can do better than that! Get me a Hitler reference in and I’ll be proud of you.

Tiffany

September 10th, 2011
2:25 pm

To assume that foie gras is not cruel only to justify eating it is ludicrous. Gavage can be a treatment used by vets, but I am quite sure they wouldn’t be pumping what is equivalent to 31 pounds of cooked pasta to us down their throats everyday. There is a reason why birds used in foie gras production are twenty times more likely to die than birds on regular industrial poultry farms. The injuries that they endure are atrocious. Yes, it has been produced for centuries, but we have had many things that are part of our history that have no place in our future. Animals do not have rights and will continue to be consumed and eaten by humans, but I hope that people will realize that they shouldn’t have to suffer horrific conditions and pain to inevitably end up on a plate. It isn’t a shallow matter of just tasting good. If we, as I have seen written in previous posts, are on “top” of the food chain, we should have developed the ability to demand compassion and take responsibility for what is inflicted on animals on our behalf.

David

September 10th, 2011
2:29 pm

I have an idea; let’s all eat nothing and die. After all, do we really know that plants have no feelings or consciousness? Just because plants don’t have faces or make sounds (that we recognize), are we sure they don’t suffer when they are cut, picked, pulled up by the rootsand cooked or otherwise processed for human comsumption? Just because it’s difficult to humanize a plant, is it any less inhumane to kill and eat them?

Victoria

September 10th, 2011
2:43 pm

Hey David, tell you what, why don’t you gather a group of people together of all ages, toddlers to elderly, and have them watch the harvesting of carrots, potatoes and broccoli. Let them witness those vegetables being peeled, chopped and prepared. Then, have them witness a cow, chicken and pig being slaughtered as they thrash about and fight for their lives. Let them watch the animals being gutted and sliced. Then, please ask the audience what they would like to eat for lunch.

Unbelievable how corpse eaters like to pull the ludicrous “plants have feelings” card. I have no doubt that corpse consumption clogs some people cognizant abilities.

Rodney

September 10th, 2011
6:45 pm

“Corpse eaters” … ROFL … hyperbole, much?

big fat vgn

September 10th, 2011
8:19 pm

Why is compassion so offensive to meat addicts?

James

September 10th, 2011
8:39 pm

why is logic so offensive to vegans?

Robert

September 10th, 2011
10:33 pm

James, when I see somebody invoke the word “logic” I’m assuming that they obviously have their logical arguments formulated and worked out in detail. So, based on the assumption that you have taken logic courses in college (or somewhere), could you please explain and expound upon them to this entire forum? I’ll expect a well thought out and thouroghly logical response when I check this in the morning. Thanks in advance.

Robert

Pey

September 11th, 2011
9:27 am

The taste has nothing to do with whether or not the production and consumption of diseased goose livers is okay. Babies probably taste just fine too once they are marinated and roasted on the BBQ. Is that okay? Nope. So, neither is torturing and killing other animals just because we can. And, PLEASE don’t give me the “god said it is our right” BS. A fairy tale god (which only seems to be invoked when it is convenient to the person trying to justify some horrible or lame act) is not a good enough excuse. Foie gras is cruel — it is banned in MANY countries. So, stop trying to justify cruelty.

Melody

September 11th, 2011
9:42 am

Ask yourself who is benefiting financially from the cruelty inflicted on the animals? And, who is getting nothing for speaking up? As always, the people who are making money are the ones who insist that torturing and killing animals is “humane” and “natural”. They would never suggest that doing these acts would be okay if it were a cat or dog. There is a reason that undercover videos are undercover — the people who are inflicting this disgusting practice on the animals do NOT want you to see what really goes on. They spend a lot of time and money to keep the truth from the public. The only logical thing Watson suggested in this article was that people should do their own research — don’t just take his word for it. I would agree – take a look at the videos and judge for yourself if this is something that you think is okay. Get the facts. http://stopforcefeeding.com/

PTC DAWG

September 11th, 2011
9:51 am

IF walks like a Duck and quacks like a Duck…eat it.

Dino

September 11th, 2011
11:55 am

I love the people defending the torture and killing of innocent animals on the many specious grounds like: it’s cultural, I’m on top of the food chain, the animals don’t feel pain. The list of pathetic excuses is endless. This is a cruel, violent world and these mindless, soulless, self-centered vermin are the reason for this cruelty and violence. So it’s cultural? then I guess you would side with people that defend dog-fighting because it’s cultural. You’re on top of the food chain? well don’t complain if someone higher on the food chain hurts you. They don’t feel pain? that excuse has been used by every group to slaughter every other group since time began. There will be an accounting for how you treated the animals in this life.

John

September 11th, 2011
12:49 pm

What a ridiculous response to a noble effort on the part of those who are trying to make the world a slight bit more kind to animals.

Robert

September 11th, 2011
5:36 pm

James, still can’t think of anything to support your “logic is so offensive to vegans” statement I see. Just what I figured. Maybe your mommy has banned you from the computer today.

James

September 11th, 2011
7:56 pm

No, Robert, you guys are proving it just fine without my help. ;)

Q.E.D.

Cate

September 11th, 2011
11:03 pm

Oh, ouch. We vegans are so illogical. Because umm… uh… oh wait, why was that again? Should I quit my career as a software developer, since I’m so devoid of logic?

I’m at the top of the food chain too, but I’m also intelligent enough to decide that sometimes concern for the pain and suffering of the lesser animals must override my gluttony. I can easily and happily exist eating fabulous food without the cholesterol, GMOs, antibiotics, diseased meat, and bad karma you are racking up.

I find it amusing that people would equate the garage done to these birds with therapeutic tube feeding. I too have tube fed an animal. However, I gave them an appropriate amount of food and made sure I didn’t adversely affect their health by feeding them. This is the POLAR opposite of what is being done here, and all of you know it.

I also find it amusing how people start posting and say “oh great, here come the AR people” – but really, what WAS the point of this article? Because, from my side, this is another “Oh here’s another one of those self-centered ‘foodies’ raving about how eating foie gras is justified” moments.

Grow up, look outside your “me me me” concept and think about how important it really is to have that diseased liver.