Saturday, July 21, 2007

Foie Gras - Animal Husbandry?

NFL star Michael Vick's indictment has done much to publicize the undercover world of dog fighting and to raise discussions regarding animal cruelty. Scott Simon offered a commentary, Calling Cruelty a 'Cultural Trait' Doesn't Excuse It on the issue of animal cruelty last week on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Saturday. Simon speaks out against dog fighting, but also raises the troubling issue of industrialized foie gras production, an embarrassment both to agriculture and to the culinary elite that demand it.

Let's be straightforward. Foie gras, or "fatty liver" is produced by force feeding the ducks and geese a grossly abnormal amount of concentrated food, usually by means of a pressurized liquid forced through a metal pipe down their throats. While Rick Steves, the travel commentator found one farm in rural France where the practice was conducted in an apparently serene family farm setting, this is clearly a remarkable exception to normal production. Industrialization of the production of foie gras has taken this unnatural and rather bizarre "animal husbandry" practice to new levels of cruelty.

Last week, an undercover video produced by Farm Sanctuary in partnership with Global Action Network is reported to have sparked an animal cruelty investigation in Canada. It is an astounding video taken inside one of the largest suppliers of foie gras in North America, Elevages Perigord. As Simon reported and the video graphically shows, workers methodically chop off the toes and beaks of the baby ducks with a scissors so that they will be less able to resist the force feeding. The ducks are then relegated to small metal cages with no room to move, again to accommodate force feeding. What is so ironic about the video is that these basic production aspects are not the basis of the animal cruelty investigation - that centers on workers slamming birds to the floor , ducks being kicked to death, and even in some cases having their heads ripped off, activities that have no agricultural purpose (using that phrase very expansively) but can only be described as instances of animal cruelty.

The video raises a question that perplexes modern industrialized agriculture. Aside from the instances of gratuitous cruelty alleged in this plant, what level of pain and suffering is it appropriate or acceptable to inflict upon an animal in order to satisfy human taste preferences or to achieve increased economic gain? Many in the livestock industry would prefer to avoid this question, but I suggest that the ostrich's head-in-the sand approach is short sighted. It is a question that is not going away, and if agriculture does not address it, consumers will impose their own answers. They have already done so in some instances, with state legislatures banning certain animal practices and even, in the case of foie gras, banning the resulting product. The video referenced above has sparked a boycott of, a supplier of Elevages Perigord foie gras.

And what of the potential loss of this delicacy? As the LA Times reported,

Geese force-fed and then slaughtered for their livers may get their final revenge on people who favor the delicacy known as pate de foie gras: It may transmit a little-known disease known as amyloidosis, researchers reported Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A team from the University of Tennessee found that an abnormal protein called a prion can be transmitted to mice via pate and bring on disease in genetically susceptible animals. Symptoms of amyloidosis are often vague and range from fatigue and weight loss to swelling and kidney damage.

Bon appetit!
Susan Schneider


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting on this topic. If any readers are interested, I've put together a bibliography on animal ethics, rights and law so as to getter a better grip on the proverbial big picture of this and related subjects. In addition to spelling out the positions that more or less follow from the specific axioms, presuppositions or assumptions of various worldviews (religious and otherwise), it contains articles and books that endeavor to bring moral and legal coherence and consistency of perspective to our relations with nonhuman animals. Send an e-mail request to patrickseamus "at" (use symbol)

7/31/2007 10:54 AM  

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