Crist’s recent post brought up an interesting and current issue: foie gras. If you’re unfamiliar with what foie gras is, it’s essentially fattened duck or goose liver. It is a French delicacy and widely appreciated for its rich flavor and buttery mouth-feel. But foie gras production has come under fire recently: California has banned the sale of foie gras (effective July 12, 2012), and it is illegal in Israel, Argentina, and several European countries. So what’s the deal with foie gras?
Foie gras is controversial because it often involves the force-feeding of ducks. Proponents and opponents of foie gras have compelling arguments for and against it, and I’d like to present both sides of the story–and let our readers decide for themselves whether or not to consume it. I, myself, have eaten foie gras many times (and yes, it was very good), and while I do not take a position on this issue today, I believe that we should know what we eat. So before choosing a side, we should know what we are deciding. Let’s start with the reasons against foie gras.
Against. Opponents of foie gras production point to the force-feeding of ducks as an example of animal cruelty, since the ducks are fed much more food than they would normally eat (this helps to develop an enlarged and fatty liver). The Humane Society, Animal Legal Defense Fund, PETA, the EU Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare, and a variety of other NGOs and governmental organizations have concluded that the force-feeding of ducks (termed gavage) is detrimental to the well-being of the animals. In particular, the EU Committee found that gavaged ducks show “avoidance behavior indicating aversion for the person who feeds them and the feeding procedure.” Force-feeding leads to the early death of the animal, according to the report, and site visits have found that ducks are kept in closed-pen, tight quarters. PETA contends that the insertion of feeding tubes into the duck’s throat causes irritation and wounds that may lead to infection.
For. Proponents of foie gras production note that research studies surrounding this topic is very limited. There is no strong evidence that indicates ducks feel pain during the process, according to the same EU study. Likewise, the American Veterinary Medical Association could not find conclusive evidence to indicate distress for the ducks, and observers at production facilities stated that there was “minimum…adverse effects on the birds involved.” The gavage process itself is also quick: it typically takes no more than three seconds to insert the feeding tube into the duck’s mouth and to push the corn feed into the esophagus.
Producers of foie gras also note that ducks do not have a gag reflex, which suggests that they do not feel discomfort during the feeding process. A number of famous chefs support foie gras (though some, like Wolfgang Puck and Albert Roux, are against it). Gavage is not the only form of foie gras production: there are also more natural feeding methods that do not involve force-feeding. Proponents also point to other livestock–cattle, pigs, and poultry–that are kept in similar closed quarters that these ducks are. Finally, foie gras is of great cultural and culinary importance to France, and its production goes back as far as 2500 BC.
Where does this debate leave us? The evidence for and against foie gras is still unclear and limited in scope. On the one hand, the thought of force-feeding ducks through a tube can send shivers down our backs. On the other hand, the relatively inconclusive studies against foie gras are not concrete enough to convince us, beyond a reasonable doubt, that its production is unethical. In any case, we in California have just ten more days to stock up on foie gras before the law goes into effect.