Foie Wars

Force-feeding amounts to either animal farming or grotesque torture, but do our chefs give a duck?

What he is referring to is last year's unanimous vote by the AVMA's house of delegates to defeat a resolution opposing the practice of force-feeding. The AVMA, founded in 1863, is one of the oldest and largest veterinary medical organizations in the world. The delegates based their voting on "limited peer-reviewed, scientific information" that was gleaned from prearranged tours of Hudson Valley's facilities by two veterinary groups, whose observations indicated "a minimum of adverse effects on the birds involved." AVMA president Dr. Bonnie Beaver's summation: "We ... have found it is not necessary for the AVMA to take a position either for or against foie gras production at this time."

Foie gras, though, has been getting seared on most other sides. In 1998 the European Union asked its Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare (SCAHAW) to produce a report about force-feeding. SCAHAW, which includes a dozen professors of veterinary medicine and agricultural scientists from across Europe, found that methods used in foie gras production negatively affect the birds' physical and psychological welfare, and concluded that force-feeding should be discouraged. In 2003 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that force-feeding of geese and ducks was in violation of the Animal Welfare Act, and in 2005 made production illegal. Israel, once the world's fourth-largest producer of foie gras, is not alone: Germany, Poland, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and the UK have also banned its sale.

Closer to home, in 2004 the California legislature passed a law, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, to terminate production and sale of foie gras (it takes effect in 2012). This past April the Chicago city council voted unanimously to do likewise, and the ban began only weeks ago. Legislation has been proposed and is being debated in Philadelphia, New York, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, and Illinois. You can partly thank or blame 26-year-old Ph.D. student Sarahjane Blum, who runs the Website, because her surreptitiously shot videos stocked with shocking, gruesome images of abuse at various foie farms have propelled a portion of the public, and its elected officials, to jump on the boycott bandwagon.

Robbin Haas of Chispa does not offer foie gras on his menu
Jonathan Postal
Robbin Haas of Chispa does not offer foie gras on his menu
Giancarla Bodoni of Escopazzo removed foie gras from her 
Jonathan Postal
Giancarla Bodoni of Escopazzo removed foie gras from her menu

The foie gras industry is having a difficult time swallowing this load of litigation and has begun to fight back to protect its estimated $20 million in annual sales. Hudson, Sonoma, Rougie (based in France and Canada), and D'Artagnan (one of the largest purveyors of American foie gras) pooled their resources to form the North American Foie Gras Producers Association. After hiring a public advocacy and lobbying group to examine the constitutionality of laws banning foie gras production or sale, the association fired its first shot: a lawsuit on behalf of Sonoma Foie Gras against Whole Foods, charging the natural-foods giant with "intentional interference with contract." According to the complaint, Whole Foods told Sonoma's supplier of ducklings, Grimaud Farms, to stop dealing with the foie gras company or the grocer would no longer do business with Grimaud. Whole Foods' account made up twenty percent of Grimaud's total sales, so the company did indeed cease its association with Sonoma. "Whole Foods does not respond to coercion," insists CEO John Mackey. "We re-examined activists' claims and decided they were basically right." The suit, meanwhile, winds its way through the courts. Apparently force-feeding is making lawyers fat too.

Chefs are split on the role government should play. "I'm not a big fan of them telling me what to do," declares Chispa's Haas. "It's like smoking; I think it should be up to the restaurant owner to decide. If enough of his customers complain that the smoke bothers them, then business will dictate the decision." Pascal Oudin believes, "A lot more important questions should be addressed by the government before even envisioning starting to speak about this one." And Susser concurs: "Too much energy is being wasted on this, instead of on better efforts. And I'm not talking about cleaning up hunger or world peace — I mean within the food industry. A much bigger threat looming is avian flu, about which we're not nearly prepared or educated enough."

Others, like Pacific Time's Eismann, think "the government needs to step in and determine if there is a cruelty issue. If that's the case, then it's the government's responsibility to regulate production. It's ridiculous to think, Oh, it's foie gras, so it's all right to let these animals suffer." Johnny V agrees: "Force the people to whom we pay our taxes to do what they are there to do and regulate the treatment of all animals, not just ducks. The proper research should be done by the USDA, rules defining what constitutes cruelty should be established, and those who produce the products should have to adhere to those regulations. Everybody should just chill out, and real facts should be distributed."

Everyone is in favor of facts, and nobody, it turns out, supports animal suffering. But where, exactly, do our esteemed culinarians ultimately stand on the foie gras issue? Meaning: Will they continue to serve it?

There's this one jewel that I really love. Unfortunately it grows at the base of the spine of Ethiopian babies, so you have to debone the babies in order to extract them. I know it sounds bad when you say it out loud, but ... what an unbelievable stone this is.
— Comedian Sarah Silverman

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