A Foie Gras Primer: Notes for Seattle’s new defenders of the liver

It seems that the Foie Gras nonsense has reared its ugly head here in Seattle. One of my favorite restaurants, Lark, has recently seen weekly protests in front of its restaurant. The Northwest Animal Rights Network (NARN) has decided to put this locally owned, small business right into their crosshairs. Sales of foie gras, by the owners accounts, have not been affected.

But the issue has sort of taken the weekly alternative paper by surprise when their food critic, Bethany Jean Clement, started posting on the issue. (Note: If memory serves, it was Ms. Clement who suggested to her editor to give me a shot at restaurant reviewing a few years back. Although she and I have never met, such a relationship is worth noting. Of course my memory may be wrong.)

The result of those posts? Explosive comment chaos, chock full of misinformation, comic posturing, and out and out insults about class. In short, everything that makes the foie gras debate fun.

Oh, and as an added bonus, NARN is using the recent ruling from the Better Business Bureau’s Advertising Board dispute with D’Artagnan as one of the many justifications for their protest. It’s interesting to note that NARN is using findings from a board that likely had no farmers, veterinarians, philosphers, or scientists on the panel. But hey, that’s just my take.

So for those of you in Seattle new to the foie gras debate, let me provide a bit of an introduction into the issues surrounding the dish.

What is Foie Gras? Foie Gras is a food product made of the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened. Source.

Specially Fattened? What does that mean? It means that the ducks and geese are feed extensively, sometimes through the use of a process called gavage. Gavage, in foie gras production, is the process in which corn is force-fed to farm-raised ducks through a funnel down their throats. Source.

Force-fed? That sounds horrible! Well, if you’re a human, it would be. But ducks and geese have a different anatomy than humans. Source.

Different? How? Well for one, they can store up to half their body weight in a diverticulum of their esophagus. This is a common trait to all birds.Source

But a tube is stuck down their throat! Not really. According the Hudson Valley, a maker of foie gras, the tube is put immediately in front of the duck or goose’s esophagus, but not into it. Source.

What about the enlarged liver? Doesn’t that cause suffering? Undeniably. It causes hepatic steatosis, which, if left untended, causes suffering in the duck and will force it to collapse. Source.

So the animal rights folks have a point? Yes and no. To produced good foie gras, a duck or goose should be killed before stress influences the taste of the liver. So the question becomes “at what point should the birds be killed”. As the source reports, there is a threshold that the bird would feel stress from the enlarged liver. If the bird is killed before that threshold is met, there is no suffering. Source.

Additionally, one has to take into account that all animal livestock ultimately endures at least one measure of violence – the slaughter of said animal. Cows, pigs, chickens all go through this in order to enter the food chain. So in essence there is at least one correlation between foie gras and your average every day daily meat source.

So if every animal meets a cruel end, why do the animal rights folks attack foie gras? Good question, and all I can give is my opinion. I suppose if you ask an animal rights activist, they’ll say that all cruelty needs to be fought, regardless of how popular or unpopular the food product.

But there are several aspects that make foie gras especially vulnerable to the activists protestations. 1) Production techniques are easily available to the public. Unlike chicken or pig farms, which agri-business severely restricts access to, foie gras’ gavage process can be readily found on the internet. For people unfamiliar with animal farming, the process can be a bit of a shock. However, for people familiar with the techniques used in beef, pig, or chicken farms, the way the ducks and geese are treated seem quite tame.

2) Foie gras is not a mainstream food dish. People who don’t go to upscale restaurants on a regular basis, rarely, if ever, eat foie gras. Thus it’s hard for the regular omnivore to get too worked up about a food that they never eat.

3) Foie gras is seen as a food of the wealthy. And who wouldn’t like to stick it to the wealthy, especially in today’s economic environment?

So foie gras farmers are wealthy? Heh. No. Not really. In the recent case of the National Advertising Division against D’Artagnan, D’Artagnan has publically stated that they won’t fight the ruling only because they can’t afford to. Foie Gras farmers (and there are only three of them in the United States) and wholesalers are typically small businesses that lack a strong legal network that can defend them from highly motivated activist groups with strong legal council Source.

Okay, so why should I care about a meat I never eat? I can’t tell you how to think, or what to care about. But consider this, what is the next food that could be determined to be created in a cruel manner? Veal? Chicken? Pigs? What a defeat of foie gras production means is that precedent will be set that a term with a broad definition (“Cruelty”, which as it currently stands is open for interpretation as there is no precise legal definition when it comes to food production) can be applied to other food products.

In other words, people who know little about animal physiology can have the legal means to tell the rest of us what we can and cannot eat, based on their own morality, rather than the greater public’s.

So we shouldn’t listen to animal rights activists? No, I think we should, with a caveat. Jonathan Golob of The Stranger has it right. We should also be listening to scientists, farmers, philosophers, and anyone else who presents a rational argument to the debate. I would posit that a belief that runs contrary to public demands and concerns requires due diligence before we make decisions based off of that belief. Forcing change through misinformation, half-truths, and propaganda runs contrary to that, and one could argue is counter-productive for the long term.

Do you have any advice to Animal Rights Activists? Several, the first of which is that they have to recognize that meat eating will be around for quite some time. A reduction of meat eating is a good idea. A worldwide cessation of meat eating is both nonviable and unlikely. If one is to use that as a basic premise to the animal cruelty debate, then one must acknowledge that some cruelty is simply unavoidable.

But more specifically, I would say that they should talk with foie gras producers in order to understand the entire picture, rather than looking at some video’s on Youtube to get their education. Foie gras producers are generally quite transparent in their techniques, and would likely welcome a respectful debate about the issues. Using intimidation, either through protests or via legal means, will likely force a more defensive and aggressive posture by those who have economic interests in the industry. But that’s more of a guess on my part.