"Certainly a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible."
-- Pope Benedict XVI, speaking when still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
Six local chefs weighed in yesterday on California's upcoming ban (July 1) on force-feeding birds and on selling the resultant enlarged livers. In 2006, I interviewed various local chefs on the topic for a feature story called "Foie Wars". A few foie gras farms have since adopted more "humane" ways of stuffing the birds, but most places still do it the old-fashioned way. Before I respond to each of the chefs who opined on the subject, let's just make sure we all know what this old-fashioned way implies.
During the last three to four weeks of a 16-week life, each day the force-fed bird gets grabbed by its neck and a metal tube nearly a foot long is inserted down its throat. This process takes place three times daily, until a ten-pound bird will consume 400 to 500 grams of feed -- the equivalent of a 175-pound person having 44 pounds of pasta pushed into him each day. The livers of each bird will swell six to ten times in size and weight, at which point the enlarged organ distends and displaces space normally reserved for the air sac, which causes the bird to gasp for air when breathing. They become so obese their legs get pushed out laterally and they can barely walk. Then again, they are restrained in shoebox-size cages so small they can't turn around or stretch their wings, so not being able to stroll is perhaps the least of their problems.
Now keep in mind: This isn't a process used to help feed billions of hungry children around the world with protein-rich liver. It isn't an unfortunate necessity required to provide working people with meat to eat. The millions of birds that suffer the lives described above do so for one reason only: so their livers can serve as an expensive foie gras delicacy for the privileged few who can pay for it. We're not talking about rich people only, but just the sort who can afford to dine at Red the Steakhouse, Meat Market, the Dutch, and so forth.
Andrew Carmellini (the Dutch), Sean Brasel (Meat Market), Peter Vauthy (Red the Steakhouse), Jamie DeRosa (Tudor House), Michael Schwartz (Michael's Genuine Food & Drink), and Kenny Gilbert (the upcoming Swine Southern Table & Bar) expressed dismay at California's foie gras ban. Each chef's argument more or less boils down to the same essence: Why not instead go after _________ ? (fill in the blank: chicken industry, shark finners, etc).
Sheesh -- what a weak defense. Here's what I mean:
Jamie DeRosa wonders whether "chefs/restaurants ignoring the shark fin ban [will] be treated equally." He adds that "some chefs dismiss the assertion that the method of raising ducks and geese for foie gras is cruel, but all agree that the practice of finning is."
Other chefs take the same tack: point to a different form of animal cruelty that is even more prevalent, and imply that any effort to stop the torture of ducks and geese somehow makes things worse for the sharks (DeRosa), chickens (Schwartz), baby cows (Brasel), Kobe cows (Gilbert), and tomato and sugar-cane workers (Carmellini).
The last comparison, from Andrew Carmellini, is probably the dumbest of the bunch: "I have always had a problem with the anti-foie people. Why not put their efforts toward the tomato or sugar-cane pickers in Florida and the quality of their lives? Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of Americans eat tomatoes and sugar; .001 percent... eat foie gras."
In other words, forget about trying to stop millions of innocent animals from needless suffering and instead concentrate on getting pay raises for farm workers. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I'd feel better about Carmellini's viewpoint if I found out he was remunerating his dishwashers at the Dutch in a generous fashion.
And let's extend the logic of concentrating only on solving the statistically larger problems and excluding the lesser ones. Would these chefs suggest that those who were seeking justice for Trayvon Martin should have stopped and instead joined in the chorus against the deaths in Syria? After all, a lot more Syrians are being gunned down by their government than African-Americans are being killed by crazy white people. Or perhaps they should have been concentrating on getting wage hikes for tomato growers instead?
Kenny Gilbert declares flat-out: "I do not believe it is cruel. The product is farm raised, fed and harvested" (a word one uses for commodities, not living beings). Gilbert then compares force feeding to "providing massages" and feeding "fatty foods" to Kobe cows. This leads me to conclude that Gilbert has never had a proper massage.
Sean Brasel doesn't think "there's much difference between force-feeding ducks to make foie gras and baby veal." Brasel continues, "My concern is where the line is drawn between what is and what is not acceptable when it comes to 'producing' food."
Allow me to draw the line: If an animal is being inflicted with pain and suffering in order to be raised for food, it is not acceptable.
Peter Vauthy "grew up with geese, ducks, and other animals." He raised chickens and knows "from experience ducks and geese can naturally eat more than you can ever imagine."
Um, Peter, I know some guys who "eat more than you can ever imagine." What I mean is that they can consume two or three huge portions of spaghetti for dinner -- not 44 pounds of pasta per day. That goes beyond imagination into unimaginable grotesqueness. On the other hand, Vauthy deserves credit for forwarding the only rational logic of any of the aforementioned chefs: "If you don't like foie gras, then exercise your freedom by not eating it."
A genuinely angry Michael Schwartz comes out swinging: "It's total fucking bullshit. Why don't they go after the chicken industry?" It's a valid point, but so is the converse: If one is compassionate toward chickens, why not extend the love to geese and ducks?
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Legislating a sense of ethics is one way to go about helping the birds. Israel, Germany, Poland, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and the United Kingdom have gone this route; California is about to do so.
Another means is for concerned consumers to do as Vauthy suggests, which is to stop eating foie gras. But really, most Americans partake of this delicacy only in restaurants, so if chefs simply stopped putting it on their menus, fewer people would indulge -- and as a result, far fewer birds would suffer.
For that to occur, however, chefs first have to get beyond the denial phase.