Debate Forum: 05/12

Forum Center: Leggo my liver!

By Katie Christoff

Illustration: Jed Helmers

In early January, a federal judge overturned a California law banning the sale of foie gras, which had originally taken effect in July 2012. Foie gras, French for “fatty liver,” has been under scrutiny by animal rights activists because in its making, ducks are force-fed so their livers become enlarged.

There are only three foie gras farms operating in the U.S., which some argue are more humane than similar farms in France and Canada, but those in opposition argue there’s no humanity in force-feeding.

Animal rights activists argue that foie gras is a result of animal cruelty. According to PETA, pipes are rammed down male ducks’ or geese’s throats multiple times a day, pumping as much as four pounds of grain and fat into their stomachs. This process is repeated until the animals’ livers are enlarged up to 10 times their normal size.

These animals are allegedly kept in cages throughout the process, and activists argue many have difficulty standing up or breathing with their enlarged livers. PETA claims some 15,000 ducks die at foie gras farms before they’re slaughtered, with causes of death including ruptured organs, liver failure and heat stress, all of which are direct results of force-feeding.

But gourmet chefs and foodies in California and the country over are pleased to see the foie gras ban overturned. These foie gras consumers argue that this process is not inhumane, since the animals are raised for slaughter in the first place. Foie gras, then, is no worse than any other food that comes from a slaughtered animal. If activists are opposed to foie gras because of the way it is produced, proponents say, then they should also avoid hamburgers, as cows are fed grains to fatten them up before slaughter. Moreover, they argue, any animals being raised for slaughter are not destined to live long and comfortable lives.

Proponents of the dish also note the physiological differences between humans and ducks – ducks have large and stretchy esophagi designed for swallowing large quantities, and breathe through their tongues instead of noses and throats, so they can still breathe comfortably with a tube inserted in their throats. The debate really comes down to this: should animals be treated with the same respect and dignity as humans, even those animals we plan to consume?

Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Should foie gras be served in restaurants, or banned as an act of animal cruelty?

 

Debate Left: In defense of foie

Response by dining critic Paula Johnson

If you’ve ever tasted foie gras, merely reading the words produces the pavlovian response I’m experiencing writing them. Silky, unctuous, sublime… If you haven’t tried it yet, you can relax about all the controversy.

Eduardo Souza is an upstart Spanish farmer whose foie gras is so legendary it won the prestigious Coup de Couer award in 2006. The fact that Souza produces foie gras so hands-down best-tasting in the world is not as extraordinary as how he does it. What Souza does is prove that ducks, when left to their own devices will produce their own foie gras. Naturally, without gavage, the tube feeding process used to enhance liver size. Souza doesn’t use gavage because his flock gorges on their own. He lets them roam free on a large farm with an electrified fence (the electric shock is on the outside, keeping predators out, never shocking the birds). They eat all the olives and figs they want from the trees Souza planted for them, along with a host of other plants which contribute to the product’s superlative taste, texture and color. All this is done working with nature, giving the ducks what they want. 

We’ve briefly explored Souza’s fairy tale version of foie gras production the way it should be. Knowing about this, how can we defend any other means of production? Consider trying to hold the entire farming industry to this same natural organic free range standard. That’s not remotely realistic. So here are some facts from Hudson Valley, New York’s La Belle Farms, which unlike most industrialized animal farms, controls every step from breeding, raising the chicks, performing the gavage, slaughtering, processing, packaging and shipping.

At La Belle the ducks are free to roam about in enormous sheds. Since they don’t receive antibiotics their outdoor exposure is minimal. Wild birds could introduce deadly bacteria. These ducks are able to walk around on their own, contradicting the notion that they become so fat as to not be ambulatory. They don’t vomit. They are disease free and healthy. Duck death rate here is 1 percent. That’s less than one-fifth of a regular chicken or duck farm. 

The kind of ducks used and their physiology is important to consider. The ducks are Moulards, the hybrid offspring of a male Muscovy (strong, adaptive and non-migratory) and a female Pekin duck (gregarious and migratory). These hybrid ducks are suited for group living and don’t have the urge to migrate, but they have the interior anatomy to accommodate the gorging that migration allows, which is what migratory birds do naturally – they have to gorge in order to stay alive.

Watch a video of a cormorant, a similar waterfowl, swallowing a spiky fish several times wider than its neck, and consider the size of the gavage tubes, which are now being made of a flexible plastic. Unlike humans, ducks have independent tracheas and esophagi, so they don’t have a gag reflex. And the topper-ducks breathe through their tongues. It’s important to resist the urge to anthropomorphize these animals and consider what they are and what they are designed to do.

Workers at La Belle (all women because the ducks seem to prefer them) are paid on a bonus based system, with their pay upgraded for every A grade liver. Any mishandling of the ducks, any rough treatment, will cause bruising, reducing the value. When the workers administer the gavage they check first by gently squeezing the base of the duck’s neck to make sure it’s finished all the food from the last feeding. If there’s still food, she skips the feeding. If not, the tube is eased down the ducks throat, the food is deposited, then the duck swallows and walks away. Don’t bother calling George Romero. It’s hardly the stuff of horror.

Foie gras is an easy target, this luxury item that’s marketed to the wealthy. Protesting the morality of Spam just doesn’t pack quite the same righteous punch. If you are against the confinement, slaughter and eating of all animals that’s another argument. But to single out foie is manipulative and misguided.

The bottom line is foie gras production can be done without intervention. It’s what these birds naturally do, so the foie gras itself is natural as proved by Eduardo Souza. But if it’s done industrially it should be judged on those producing with the highest standards, not the horrific and sensational cases we are all familiar with. Those egregious cases are not the point of the debate. There are only three foie gras farming operations in the U.S. and they certainly don’t have the clout to defend themselves to the public and influence opinion like the beef or poultry industry does. 

The average American consumes more than 60 pounds of chicken annually, as opposed to 0.00265 pounds of foie gras. Are people going to stop buying cheap eggs that come from chickens confined for a year in cages so small they can’t turn around? Or chicken from birds whose beaks are cut off? The source of anything you eat, no matter how much or how little, should be considered carefully. So the next time you scramble an egg or slide a chicken nugget down your own gullet you may want to ponder the ethical nature of that choice. The next time you order foie gras, you won’t have to.

Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

Debate Right: Gourmet delicacy or animal cruelty?

Response by Brandi Hutchison

Let’s stop and take a minute to think about our daily routine and surroundings. Perhaps you are in a coffee shop, local restaurant or business retailer. Maybe you are at home snuggled on the couch with your beloved pooch by your side or at work on your lunch break. Regardless of where you are, you are most likely in a clean, somewhat safe environment with the ability to breathe, eat and move about as you desire.

Now let’s take a minute to think back about the meals we have eaten over the last few days. If you are like me, those meals have been laden with plant-based items. Or if you are a meat eater, those meals have probably still been a variety of wholesome foods with high (or at least decent) nutritional values. 

Lastly, let’s imagine this is instead your daily routine: You are kept in a small, wire-bottom pen crowded with others. You must eat and use the bathroom in this tiny, confined space. You are unable to stretch your limbs, breathe fresh air, or feel the sunshine on your face. Feeding time is a nightmare, as it involves having a metal rod jammed down your throat and you are force fed unshelled grain. Sounds like something out of a horror film, right? Sadly, this is the life for ducks and geese destined to appear on your plate in a dish known as foie gras.

By definition, foie gras is the diseased or enlarged liver of a duck or goose, produced through a force-feeding process known as gavage. The liver of a normal duck weighs roughly 50 grams. Industry regulations require a duck’s liver to weigh a minimum of 300 grams, six times the average size, to be considered foie gras.

The pain and torture endured by these innocent animals is astounding. Because of the pressure on their other organs from their swollen livers, they often cannot breathe well and must pant for air. They are frequently too weak to lift their heads or spread their wings, although no space is allowed for them to have this luxury anyway. Often the pipe used during gavage punctures the animal’s esophagus causing pain, infection and/or death from the blood that fills their lungs. Because of the massive toll taken on the birds during the force-feeding process, the average pre-slaughter mortality rate is up to 20 times higher than on other duck factory farms, according to the European Union’s scientific report on the subject.

In addition to the awful living conditions for these animals destined for our plates, the environment suffers as well. According to information from the Animal Protection and Rescue League, the birds are fed roughly 2.2 pounds of genetically modified corn per day. If you multiply that by the approximately 500,000 ducks and geese that are force fed to produce foie gras in the U.S. annually, the result is an industry that requires 22,000,000 pounds of grain each year. Fois gras is comprised almost entirely of fat and has virtually no nutritional value. Based on the extremely large amount of grain necessary to provide this very small amount of unhealthy food, no one can argue foie gras is a sustainable agricultural practice. Foie gras farms produce unacceptable levels of animal waste that eventually ends up in our water supply. Further, growing corn involves inefficient water usage, affects sensitive land areas and causes pesticide runoff, all of which have an effect on each and every one of us, whether we choose to partake in this “delicacy” or not.

The fact we even have to have a debate about whether foie gras should be served in restaurants or banned as an act of animal cruelty is preposterous. Many proponents of the dish argue it is no different than any other animal that is slaughtered for human consumption. I disagree wholeheartedly with this statement based on the fact that even during their short existence, they are not allowed to actually experience the lives nature intended for them to have. Just because something is legal or common practice means it is ethical or should be done. Many countries find it perfectly acceptable to sell their children into human trafficking. Infanticide, female genital mutilation and public executions are all practiced in various locations throughout the world. Does that make it okay? Of course not! The same way it is not okay to torture an animal just so you can have three minutes of enjoyment out of eating its fatty, diseased liver.

Before you pick up your fork, think about what you are eating. That tiny little plate of foie gras was once a living, breathing being who was tortured for your enjoyment. It was cold, scared and force fed to the point of constant discomfort.

Animals kill as an act of survival. They do not have a moral compass or the ability to make a choice other than their natural instinct. We as humans are supposed to be at the top of the evolutionary pyramid, with the ability to reason, feel compassion and know right from wrong. Yet we are the only beings who seem to take such enjoyment in finding ways to torture those “beneath” us. We have become greedy and uncaring, and in response, force other living beings to suffer for our own enjoyment.

A lifelong animal lover and animal right’s advocate, Brandi Hutchison is also an internal auditor, volunteer for Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the co-Founder and Executive Director of Paw Patrol, a group that works to better the lives of dogs in the Dayton community. In addition, she fosters dogs for Miami Valley Pit Crew and cats for Advocates 4 Animals. Please contact Brandi at brandi.hutchison@pawpatroldayton.com or 937.350.1PAW.

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