beyond foie gras: our animal cruelty problem

Last week, a federal judge in California overturned the state’s ban on the sale of foie gras. If you aren’t a food person and/or you don’t have the kind of money where you can spend $50-$75 a pound on meat, you might not even really know what foie gras is.

Well, it’s the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened. Force-fed, actually. I don’t think that anyone can argue around the fact that most of the foie gras produced in this country is produced unethically. It definitely crosses the line into animal cruelty for animals to have tubes shoved down their throats to make them eat.

There are places where foie gras is not produced in this way. Dan Barber, author of The Third Plate, talks about it in his book. In the instance he describes, the birds are cared for in a natural habitat and given the opportunity to eat whatever they want – however much they want – without being force-fed. Once they are fattened, they are killed by putting them to sleep first – painless for the birds. So there are some instances where the cruelty of force-feeding and painful slaughter isn’t involved (beyond the fact that the animals are ultimately killed for food, which does cross the line into cruelty for many people).

However, whether or not someone should eat foie gras and whether or not its production is cruel is not what bothers me about this entire issue. Animal rights activists are livid and enraged about the lifting of this ban. So much so that chefs in California who are serving foie gras are receiving death threats. I think any sane human being can agree with me that death threats are not an appropriate response to this situation.

But putting so much energy into this foie gras fight is a problem for me. Ducks and geese represent only the tiniest fraction of animals that are raised for food production in this country. Only a tiny percent of the thousands of restaurants in America are serving foie gras on their menus – and not every customer that eats in those restaurants is ordering it. We consume so little foie gras as a nation that it’s beyond absurd that the backlash to this issue is so strong. Guess what, America?

We torture millions of animals every day in this country for food. Somehow it’s okay to be righteously angry at rich people for eating foie gras in a fancy restaurant because people see photos of these birds being force-fed and they are disgusted (and rightfully so). But many of the people who swear they would never eat foie gras are helping themselves to industrially raised chickens (meat and eggs) and cows (beef and dairy) and pigs (pork) every single day.

Mark Bittman basically took the words right out of my mouth.

There are no politicians who have the guts to come forward with legislation that protects these animals from cruelty. It’s easier to go after duck liver – something that most Americans won’t ever eat in their lifetimes anyway. We vilify a $75 slice of duck liver while we roll through the drive-thru for our $1 hamburger.

There is no escaping or denying that industrially raised animals spend their lives in horrible pain, anguish and torture. I can find no excuse or justification for this. None.

Requiring chickens to be raised cage-free or removing hogs from horrible gestation crates would help millions more animals than banning foie gras ever will. (Though that’s not to say that it’s enough.) But Americans love an easy target. To borrow a metaphor, we love to focus on the speck in someone’s eye instead of the gigantic branch sticking out of our own.

I honestly think you have no right to protest foie gras if you consume any industrially raised animal products. You don’t have to be vegan to do that either – I am an omnivore by choice, but I would be vegan in a heartbeat if I didn’t have access to food from animals that are raised to my standards. “I don’t have enough money to eat ethically” is not an excuse to me.

Is this a little preachy? Yes. Maybe a lot preachy. That’s fine.

I do believe that people have the right to make their own choices about food. I don’t think people are villainous for eating CAFO beef or a McChicken sandwich. But do I believe the corporations who perpetuate this kind of treatment for animals in search of profit are villainous? Yes. Absolutely.

We need to hold ourselves to higher ethical standards when it costs us something – some money, some inconvenience – not just when it costs a rich person in California his/her appetizer. As a nation, we are better off putting our energy where it counts – passing legislation that considers ALL livestock animals to be animals and not commodities, not just ducks and geese.

  • Mark Stone

    The thing with foie too is that there is a not unreasonable argument that the geese don’t suffer from gavage (the “force feeding” process). Serious Eats had a great writeup in defense of foie. The TL;DR is, if a human had to undergo gavage, it would suck. For a goose, there is no gag reflex, no issues breathing while eating, etc.

    http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/12/the-physiology-of-foie-why-foie-gras-is-not-u.html

    • Joanna Taylor Stone

      I get what you’re saying. I just don’t see the need for force-feeding at all, even if it doesn’t activate their gag reflex. Animals should be free to eat the amount they want – the same idea as cattle that graze at their leisure on grass. We wouldn’t shove tubes down the throat of a cow and we shouldn’t do it to geese or ducks.