Death and Cruelty: Foie Gras and Ethics

From the always wonderful Law for Food:

While fois gras opponents aren’t seeking to determine liability, the Hand formula remains useful for comparing the harm of fois gras to the other possible harms worth protesting throughout the industrialized food supply. Feedlot overcrowding, for instance, is far more widespread, both in terms of total number of animals, and of total biomass affected, than fois gras production, and the amount of suffering per animal is at least as bad.

According to one estimate, world fois gras production in 2005 was 23,500 pounds. At 2 lbs/bird (a reasonable estimate, I am given to believe), that’s 12,250 birds per year. In the world.

By contrast, in 2003 10.7 Million cattle alone were raised in large feedlots, according to the USDA, and this number only represented one third of the 33 Million total cattle raised in the U.S. This does not take into account the number of pigs and sheep raised in feedlots in the U.S., or the cattle, sheep, and pigs raised in the rest of the world.

Thus, the number of creatures affected by fois gras production is substantially smaller than the number of creatures affected by feedlot practices.

It now falls to us to consider whether the harm done to fois gras birds may be so severe as to outweigh, when aggregated, the harm done to feedlot cattle when aggregated.

The entire post is worth reading, especially the bits on just how much damage/pain a duck or goose goes through due to gavage (or is it the gavage?).

I realize that to many folks out there, the posts of foie gras mean little , but to me it’s one of the premier topics regarding food out there. Ethics are important to me, and they play a large role in how I determine purchases, both food and otherwise.

There are many questions raised by ethical purchasing (including my favorite – that using ethics as a variable is a luxury – but that is a post for a later date), but the key to ethics is that the facts used in these decisions have to be correct.

To some, the root of the foie gras debate is the question of animal cruelty. But even that is not entirely correct, because many people cannot determine the definition of what is “cruel”.

For some vegetarians, the question of cruelty is an easy one – the killing of an animal, regardless of how well it was raised, is an intrinsically cruel act. Therefore, the foie gras debate means little, because the end result is the same, whether gavage is cruel or not.

But for meat eaters, the question is much more complex. Many omnivores have determined that eating meat is not intrinsically cruel, but rather the cruelty occurs at some point in the life of the animal itself. There are many variations of this perspective, usually taking the form of two different positions. I’ve oversimplified them for the benefit of the post length, but they are essentially the following:

  • The cruelty happens while during the animals lifespan.
  • The cruelty occurs to the species as a whole, if the animals are not used for food.

The former argument can be considered a short term position, while the latter is a longer term, “big picture” point of view. Very few people reflect upon the latter, and I’m going to avoid it for the time being.

The problem with both of these positions is, again, what is cruel? Is death the ultimate cruelty? If not, what is?

From my own perspective, I’ve come to terms with the fact that animals have to die in order to feed the population. Even in the production of grains, animals die (how many field mice, rabbits, and other such creatures do you think get caught up in the combines?) If death is a common occurrence in the realm of food production, then it can hardly be called cruel. The cruelty then, is not that animals die, but rather how the animals die.

When you start asking questions about the “how”, then the questions turn to how the animals are treated. And when you start asking questions about how the animals are treated at death, it is also reasonable to ask how the animals are treated during their life. It is, at the very core, a question of the animal’s “quality of life”.

The difficulty in this perspective is how to define “quality of life” for animals. Certainly it would seem a tad specious to use a human standard for the “quality of life” of a cow or a pig. What would make a good life for a duck or a goose?

Here’s where the opponents of foie gras fail in the debate. They have not yet provided any evidence that the act of gavage is in of itself, a bad “quality of life” for the birds. As Law for Food has pointed out, it is the incidental harms that they are focusing on (over crowding, sanitary conditions, etc, etc.) As not every foie gras producer is guilty of overcrowding or providing less than clean, then painting the entire industry with such a large brush is either being done intentionally or unintentionally. If unintentionally, then their position is based on fallacious reasoning. If it is done intentionally, then the debate then moves from a ethical debate, to that of a political one. And once you move into the realm of the political, whatever cachet one had from arguing from the ethical position is lost.

Once politicians start telling us what we can and cannot eat (and really, what are PETA and their ilk but politicians…or at least political agents… in this debate?), then they’ve crossed yet another ethical line. From my point of view, that’s what is at stake here – do we want political agents influencing diets based on nebulous ethical determinations?