Saturday, June 30, 2012

Controversy over foie gras: California bans the stuff

An uncut foie gras liver. Photo: David Monniaux.
Used under Creative Commons Atrribution-ShareAlike license.

Foie gras will be illegal in the state of California as of July 1, 2012. The ban is a major milestone for animal-rights activists, and for anyone who cares about animal suffering. Foie gras is the fatty and grossly-enlarged liver of geese or ducks, an expensive “gourmet” meat created by force-feeding the birds.

It’s my understanding that California will be the first U.S. state to outlaw the sale and the production of foie gras. A number of European countries, as well as Israel and Argentina, have already banned it. The city of Chicago did so in August of 2006, but the ban only lasted two years before the city council overturned it, under pressure from restaurant owners and then-Mayor Daley.

In banning this meat considered a delicacy, the California state legislature apparently acted out of concern for animal cruelty. The ban was requested by a coalition of animal-protection organizations including the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, Farm Sanctuary, Los Angeles Lawyers for Animals, and Viva!USA. Sales of foie gras are way up in California at present, as diners fond of fatty livers make merry while they can.

Kate Winslet exposes foie gras farms on this video

No one disputes that force-feeding geese and ducks up to 4 lbs of grain and fat per day through a tube pushed down their throats is unpleasant and dangerous for the birds. Perhaps “cruel” would be a better word. Yet, feeding is just one piece of the picture. Between feedings, the birds are not swimming around a pond or frolicking through the grass to shake off the bad experience. On large-scale foie gras farms, each duck is confined permanently to a cage that hugs its body, unable to groom itself or even turn around. Only their heads and necks protrude from the long rows of battery cages, so that staff inserting the feeding tubes 3 times a day can move along the rows quickly. Check out this video of Kate Winslet narrating undercover footage of the feeding and housing of foie gras birds.

Under this regimen, the birds’ fat-laced livers grow so large that the animals are eventually unable to move or to breathe normally. The livers are prized as a delicacy because of their fatty, “buttery” taste.

Workers, consumers victimized too

I have not visited a foie gras farm. I have however inspected a Food Lion egg factory (over a million caged hens in one facility), a massive Tyson broiler farm (chickens), a Tyson breeder farm, and a factory hog farm – all of which are described in detail in our book Veggie Revolution.
Animals are not the only victims in these dismal places. We also interviewed farm-owners and workers – none of them were happy working under contract to meatpacking companies whose guiding ethic is shaving pennies from production costs. Worker safety, consumer safety, animal welfare, and environmental safeguards all take a back seat to shareholder profits for the meatpacking corporations that are calling the shots.

Laborers on factory farms and in meatpacking plants, including foie-gras farms, are paid minimal wages and are often illegal immigrants too vulnerable to object to exploitive and dangerous working conditions. Usually working under a quota of animals or carcasses processed per minute, they are forced to rush through procedures such as force-feeding of geese or ducks for foie gras. Consequently, workers often injure themselves as well as animals. The throats of the geese and ducks are often perforated and scraped as the tube is pushed into place for each feeding.

Fois gras a small market, can lead to bigger victories later

In reality, the plight of foie gras birds is not particularly worse than that of most factory-farmed animals. Foie gras has been targeted by animal-rights activists because it’s a relatively small market that is more vulnerable to change than more broadly entrenched practices. Banning foie gras is a far more achievable goal than, say, demanding that beef cattle no longer be fed the corn that marbles their meat and speeds their growth, maximizing profits for ranchers and meatpackers. (Corn makes cattle very sick.)

Supermarkets are customer-driven – your objection counts

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 large supermarket chain store about the veal they sell, for our book Veggie Revolution. He said supermarkets are purely customer-driven. They carry what customers buy, period. Sales of veal (another smallish market) 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 anemic 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. dropped 62% between 1987 and 2006. As consumers learn more about foie gras, I believe its sales will drop as well. Hopefully more states will follow California’s inspiring example.

Keywords: foie gras ban animal cruelty factory farming animal products animal welfare California ban forced feeding gavage duck livers goose livers

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