Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Foie Gras: The Controversy & Debate

Do you enjoy foie gras? Are you opposed to it, thinking it is cruel? Or do you fall somewhere in the middle, maybe unsure about the issue? Today, let us explore the foie gras controversy and set the ground work for discussion and debate.

Please note that some of the items in this post come from The Foie Gras Wars by Mark Caro, a book I recently reviewed and recommended. I'll note the page numbers for the items I present.

It is difficult to even phrase an initial question concerning the foie gras controversy because the phrasing might bias the answer, or the question may be ambiguous. For example, say we ask, is the production of foie gras cruel? The problem is with the definition of "cruel?" Couldn't we say that the raising of nearly all animals is cruel in some respect? As another example, we might ask whether ducks raised for foie gras suffer? But then what is the definition of "suffer?" Doesn't the raising of all animals involve suffering in some respect?

Maybe instead we should qualify our questions with terms such as "unnecessary" or "extreme" cruelty or suffering. But even those definitions are likely to cause problems. Despite these difficulties, we still can have a meaningful discussion about this subject. We just may have to be more creative in how we approach the matter.

For many, "Suffering remains the accepted yardsick for assessing the welfare of any "sentient being." (p.19) Yet defining that term remains a significant issue. Not everyone uses the same standards to assess it. If someone is concerned about any and all animal suffering, then they would likely have to be opposed to any raising of animals for food or other items. Yet all animals are not treated the same. So, we can at least try to compare the treatment of different animals to see which might suffer more.

Consider first that close to 10 billion animals are killed each year and almost 9 billion of them are "broiler" chickens, which are raised for their meat. (p.19) More than 95% of all animals raised in the U.S. are thought to be involved in food production. About 20 million animals are used in testing. (p.56)

Most of those billions of chickens are raised in huge factory farms where they are kept in tiny cages in horrendous conditions. If you are concerned about cruelty to animals, you might want to speak out about those factory farms especially when they involve so many billions of animals. Consider this as well: When a male version of an egg-laying chicken is born, they are usually killed, often gassed with C02. They are considered useless as they can't lay eggs and are a different genetic strain than broiler chickens. (p.19)

Hogs and cattle are also raised on factory farms, and they too have their significant share of problems, harsh conditions which lead to animal suffering. Check out Righteous Porkchop for much more information about the horrors of these factory farms. Plus, these factory farms are environmental hazards and the problems are much deeper than just animal cruelty. With such vast issues, then why should people be so vocal about ducks and foie gras?

How big is the foie gras industry in the U.S? Consider that approximately 500,000 ducks a year are slaughtered for foie gras. Some factory farms kill that many broiler chickens in a single day. (p.69) So we can see that foie gras production is a very small operation. By sheers numbers, we should be far more concerned about chickens and other animals before foie gras. So why does it seem that the opposition to foie gras is so much more prevalent and vocal?

For one thing, and which is quite important, because the foie gras industry is small, its response to criticisms, boycotts and such is usually equally small. They lack the mighty industries, with their accompanying wealth, that are behind chicken and pork. So foie gras is a far easier target. Rather than take on billion dollar industries, the protesters would rather take on a mere handful of duck farmers. And in doing so, these protesters ignore far greater problems.

Criticism of foie gras production generally centers on the process of "gavage," the "force feeding" of the ducks and geese. I am not sure many people fully understand this process though. The term itself, force feeding, seems to carry significant negative connotations. Yet what is the reality? One caveat is that we cannot anthropomorphize ducks and geese. They are animals and don't have the same biology as humans. They don't feel the same things, in the same way, that we do. So, if we are trying to determine whether these birds suffer, we must consider such suffering from the point of view of the birds, and not how a human would view it.

Ducks raised for foie gras generally spend their first 12 weeks as free range birds, and there is no force feeding done during that time. They essentially live pleasant lives and you would be hard pressed to say that they suffer in any respect, unless you are completely opposed to raising animals. As a comparison, regular ducks that are slaughtered just for their meat live for only about 5.5 weeks. Broiler chickens generally live for only about 6-7 weeks. So we can see that foie gras ducks actually live at least twice as long as these other birds. That is surely a benefit to being such a duck.

After the 12 week period, foie gras ducks are moved to either group pens (in the U.S.) or individual cages (in France and Canada). Gavage will then be conducted 2-3 times a day over a period of 2-4 weeks. If the process is done over four weeks, the feeding is done more gradually. In this force feeding, a metal tube or pipe is lowered into a ducks's throat for about 2-10 seconds while the food is being introduced. Did you realize how quick this was done? How much does a duck suffer during these very brief instances of force feeding?

Gavage is supposed to mimic in some respects how birds gorge themselves prior to migration. (p.6) This is a good example of why we should not anthropomorphize these birds. Unlike humans, these birds have systems designed to accomodate such over eating. There are veterinarians who support that gavage is not cruel. (p.44) Yet there remain those who are vehemently opposed to this practice. Who is correct?

For further consideration, you should also read a recent letter written by the owners of Incanto restaurant in San Francisco. The letter, Shock & Foie: The War Against Dietary Self-Determinism, is a well written, cogent and compelling argument in support of foie gras. I highly recommend you read it and carefully consider its contents.

So where do you stand on the foie gras controversy? Please post your thoughts in the comments. If you have written before on this subject, please post links to your articles in the comments as well.


adele said...

I've eaten foie gras once this year, and I know exactly where it came from (Hudson Valley Farm.)

I have also, to my shame, eaten chicken, beef, and pork from industrial sources on more occasions than I can count.

No prizes for guessing which one troubles my conscience.

Richard A. said...

Thanks Adele for your comment. I agree with you as to which should bother our consciences more.

Kay said...

Personally, I feel it is irrelevant which industry is "worse." And being free range and "happy" for 12 weeks of life does not mean that they suffer any less in the end. It may even be worse, in some respects, to know freedom and loose it then to never have known it at all.

ArmyMama said...

I have eaten foie gras as well and I must admit I prefer that over feedlot beef.