What is it about foie gras that made the city council of Chicago banish the "gourmet" meat from area restaurants this past week? Many angry restaurant owners chose the very day the ban took effect - Aug 22 - to serve foie gras in their establishments for the first time. Slabs of the oily, buttery-tasting goose liver showed up in unconventional dishes such as foie gras pizza - in defiance of the new city ordinance against it. Some restaurant owners said they were just resisting any effort by city government to regulate what they can and can't serve in their restaurants.
In banning the meat considered a delicacy, the city council acted out of concern for animal cruelty. No one seems to dispute that force-feeding geese and ducks up to 4 lbs of grain and fat per day through a tube pushed down their throats is cruel. The birds are force-fed to produce a huge and fat-laced liver, which grows so large that the animals are eventually unable to move or to breathe normally. The livers are prized as a delicacy for their fatty, "buttery" taste.
Animal-rights and vegetarian groups have documented the details of animal misery in the abusive foie-gras industry, such as this article from GoVeg. The geese and ducks are force-fed three times a day. But between the feedings, they're not swimming around a pond or frolicking through the grass on peaceful spacious farms. Like other fowl raised for food, or for eggs, most are confined indoors in cramped quarters between feedings. Many are housed in rows of battery cages that open from the top, similar to the cages that egg-laying hens customarily spend their lives in. We visited and inspected a factory egg farm for a major supermarket chain, and a massive Tyson broiler farm where chickens for meat are raised, as well as a Tyson breeder farm - all of which are described in detail in our book Veggie Revolution. We also interviewed all the farmers, and heard their stories - none of them were entirely thrilled with operating under contract to meatpacking companies whose guiding ethic is shaving pennies from production costs. Environmental issues, animal welfare, consumer health, and workers' rights all take a back seat to shareholder profits for major meatpacking corporations.
Day laborers on factory farms and meatpacking plants, including foie gras farms, are paid very low wages and are often illegal immigrants too vulnerable to object to exploitive and often dangerous working conditions. Usually working under a quota of animals or carcasses processed per minute, they are forced to rush through procedures such as inseminating turkeys, or force-feeding of geese or ducks for foie gras. Consequently, the throats of the geese and ducks are often perforated and scraped as the tube is pushed into place for each feeding. Birds that survive the rough treatment eventually become grossly bloated from their huge and fatty livers, the consequence of overfeeding.
What can you do? If you see foie gras for sale, tell the proprietor of the shop or restaurant that you find the sale distressing, and tell them why. They may not know much about how the liver is produced. Tell them that you won't shop or dine there as long as they carry the product. We interviewed the manager of a Harris Teeter, a large supermarket chain, about the veal they sell in the store, for Veggie Revolution. He said supermarkets are purely customer-driven. They carry what customers buy. Sales of veal have dropped dramatically in recent years due to publicity from animal rights groups, who have educated the public about what veal is exactly - it's beef from calves that are kept isolated in narrow stalls from the age of 1 day to slaughter at 4 months, often chained at the neck to keep their muscles weak and tender. Although Americans are still eating veal, demand in the U.S. has dropped 62% since 1987. I think the same thing will happen with foie gras. It's starting in Chicago; the state of California will follow suit in 2012. As consumers learn more about foie gras, I believe sales will drop.
It's not just food - the sale of SUVs and light trucks has fallen precipitously in recent months due to rising gas prices. Americans are seeking small, fuel-efficient cars that Detroit is unable to deliver. Hence the sales of Asian cars that get good gas mileage - Toyota, Honda, Nissan - have increased. Now Ford and General Motors are scrambling to meet the changing demands of American consumers. Ford is shifting production to flex-fuel cars that can burn a fuel blend that's up to 85% ethanol. They're too late to get in on the hybrid market; Toyota has that one nailed. See our posts of mid June to mid July, especially 7/15/06, for more about that.
Which all just goes to say that power is in consumers' hands. The city council of Chicago started the ball rolling by banning foie gras - now it may be up to consumers to keep that ball rolling. As consumers, we get what we ask for. We vote with our dollars. Most people care about animals, polls show that the vast majority of Americans object to animal abuse. So let's pay attention to what we're eating, and if we're eating animal products, let's get informed and choose products from humanely raised animals. This usually means animals raised on small and local family-owned farms and animals raised at pasture, rather than in confinement. Ask at your local farmers market or natural food store for providers near you. Or check out www.eatwild.com or www.localharvest.org. Foie gras is just the beginning.
For more about the ban in Chicago, see our August 23 post, Fois Gras from Force-fed Geese is Banned in Chicago.