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Foie gras ban: What do you think?


I’ve been watching this foie gras brouhaha unfold in California for the past several months, unable to wrap my head around it. Background: the state passed a law that went into effect on July 1 banning the sale of foie gras made by the conventional method: force-feeding birds.

Next thing you know, foie gras lovers were up in arms. Companies that manufacture the stuff sued the state. Conservative and libertarian publications denounced it as an unConstitutional intrusion of Big Government. Restaurant owners are said to be openly defying the new law, daring to be arrested, while some are taking a more interesting approach: one owner whose restaurant is in the Presidio national park says the law doesn’t apply to him because his place is on federal land, not California–even though it’s right in the middle of San Francisco.

What’s baffled me are not the legal issues, which I don’t understand and will leave to the courts to unwravel, but the moral ones. Personally, I don’t care for foie gras. Never did like the stuff. I’ve had plenty of it on my plate over the years, thanks to all the wine dinners I get invited to (I’d certainly never buy foie gras), but I generally leave it alone, or offer it to someone else who’s more of a paté lover than I am. Foie gras is pure fat; to me, it’s like eating Crisco. I don’t want that in my body.

But then there’s the moral issue of force-feeding the birds, and this is when I get brain freeze. I certainly don’t like thinking about it: putting a tube or funnel down the bird’s throat, then shoving food down there. The practice is known as gavage. Here’s the Wikipedia definition: “…the practice of feeding a person or an animal against their will. The term ‘gavage’ refers to the supplying a nutritional substance by means of a small plastic tube passed through the nose or mouth into the stomach…”.

Seems like it would hurt–a form of torture, actually. Who could possibly be in favor of that, especially since the point of it is merely to supply needless calories to a population already severely overweight?

But then I start thinking that every animal product I eat is the result of some form of torture. My chicken, my salmon, my lamb, they all come from cute little animals that have been killed for my pleasure. A chef once told me that the reason why Japanese wagyu, or Kobe, beef is so superior to Texas or Australian versions is because in Japan there are no animal cruelty laws: the poor cattle are penned in for their entire lives, so that they never develop muscles. (When I learned that, I decided never again to eat Japanese Kobe beef.)

I have several friends who are vegans or vegetarians for precisely this reason: they cannot countenance their well-being and happiness based on the imprisonment and murder of other (conscious, feeling, suffering) animals. (I admit to occasionally wondering if that ear or corn or stalk of wheat feels pain when it’s summarily chopped off from its living root.) While I’m not about to give up meat, I have enormous empathy for those who have. In a way, they’re my moral superiors.

So foie gras? Like I said, I just don’t know where I stand on this one. I’ll wait and see how it plays out. What do you think?

  1. It seems like a black market will be created as people still want it and who knows how those suppliers will treat the animals with no oversight. It would have been better to make laws supporting humane production. I was in New Orleans 2 weeks ago and your new ban was a hot topic, the consensus there is that y’all are just crazy.
    It is not a staple on my grocery list but if I were to need it, I would choose Humanely produced if given the option.

  2. Michael says:

    My quick two cents, with no answers just thoughts on this.

    First, thanks for all the back ground links. It helps to read what you read to form your opinion. Sounds like it’s not torture to the animals. One article linked here said ducks and geese have no gag reflex. So that part of the gavage is moot. Yes, we, people, do, so, yes, it would bother (hurt) us.

    Second, it would be nice to know how the gavage is performed on geese and ducks. Since, as that same article said, ducks’ and geeses’ livers “naturally” take on extra fat for long flights, this seems like it might be an action – “this” being over eating or excessive eating by the bird – that the animal does on its own at some point. So are the birds locked in pens, head through bars like milk cattle when milking, or are their free range? I think I have seen videos of the gavage: the guy is just walking around the yard with a cone and a bag of food, grabs the animals, “gavages” – if I can make that a verb – and walks on to the next one. Is that just to make it look ok, or is that how it’s done?

    Third, the overweight population comment seems like a stretch. Like, don’t water your law in CA when there is a draught in Somalia. The overweight population this…Mickey D’s no longer offers foie gras on their McFrench Fries or McQuater pounders. And even with that people are getting fat. Hmmmm, might be the quarter pounders?

    Finally, I was a vegetarian for 14 years of my 40. I was happy then, and am now happy to eat steak again. The morality of “to eat or not to eat that delicious steak” is far more complicated than a short blog. You know the “you can feed a family for a year with one acre, or one cow which only feeds a family for…” I don’t know how long. A month? Then there’s the, “does food hurt when we eat it?” No. Trees produce fruit for animals to eat so seeds get dispersed far and wide. No tree will cry, sap or salty tears, to know that it’s 1,000 seeds were carried away to germinate and grow NOT under its own boughs. In the end I try to eat more fruits and veggies, but, and some studies I have read and heard so this: meat is good for humans (in small amounts). 2 cents.

    Thanks for your blog and posts.

  3. Steve, for chrissakes! You don’t have to take a comparative anatomy class, but just look up “waterfowl” and “trhoat” on the web.
    “Throat”? In geese? “Forcefeeding” It is clear you know how to look up and link to stuff on the web. Too bad it’s only stuff that supports your point. You don’t have to like foie gras or oppose the ban, but at least use facts, ALL the facts, in your arguments. This line of reasoning epitomizes Opinionated Ignorance.

  4. Michael, you’re welcome. Thanks for your comment.

  5. A couple thoughts. First, last week on local SFO TV several well known chef personalities were discussing the use of “foie-age” a new variation of “corkage”–instead of bringing in your own wine, bring in your own foie gras and they will serve it as requested for a “foie-age” of, say, 20 or thirty dollars!

    Second, don’t ever go to a chicken farm to see how eggs are produced and gathered.

    Third, a friend of mine went on a David Rosengartem food and wine outing to Europe many years ago and as part of the trip they went to a farm to watch the “humane” feeding routine. It was, according to him, one of the most upsetting things he had ever witnessed, including watching the geese trying to run for cover.

  6. Carlos Toledo says:

    I feel very sorry for all those fruits and vegetables that are mercilessly uprooted from their homes or taken away from mama branch.

    Vegetables and fruits are living beings who suffer too. These vegetarians folks should be aware of that. Ever wonder how cruel it is to cut in slices a tomato?

    Animals suffer therefore i won´t eat them. Ok veggie boys, how about the green buddies (no pun) too?

    For the record i like paté, but i can´t care less for foie gras.

  7. Steve Wino says:

    I watched an investigative news segment on the feeding practices. The farm was as idyllic as one could imagine. The geese were treated like royalty. They exhibited no discomfort when fed. I liken it to dogs, who will overeat if allowed to. I believe part of the problem is that people humanize the geese and imagine what it would be like as a human. But that doesn’t make it so. Where was the outrage about the treatment of cattle before Dr. Temple Grandin began helping the cattle industry understand how the cattle were suffering in the process of getting them to the slaughterhouse?

  8. Tom Barras, “geese trying to run for cover” is a very disturbing image.

  9. I feel like too many folks get buried in the weeds when thinking about these sorts of issues. Whether it is a cigarette smoking ban, marijuana sales ban, salt ban, trans fats, or foie gras, I tend to feel that people should have the liberty to make their own choices (and mistakes). If you feel the need to stand up for the rights of geese, stand up for the rights of the geese that you would’ve eaten by not eating them. Why do we always trend toward banning more and more things over time? Just like any prison, you build it one bar at a time.

  10. I like foie gras, think it’s outstanding with good sweet wine, and usually have it once or twice on my trips to France, but don’t worship it. If I never had it again, it wouldn’t upset me (unlike wine!). But I think that banning it makes little sense. With all the horrible things that happen in our modern food production system, foie gras production is nothing. But it’s low-hanging fruit, and easy for government to say: “Look, we’re doing something about animal cruelty.”
    I also hesitated commenting on this post, since it really was so pathetic. For example: “especially since the point of it is merely to supply needless calories to a population already severely overweight?” Define “needless calories.” And are foie gras eaters generally overweight? Makes no sense. I’ve been reading Steve’s posts for quite awhile, despite the fact that I almost never drink California wine, because I’ve often found them refreshing. But between this one and the “difference between cheap wine and expensive wine” post, I think I’ve had enough.

  11. Fist of all, liver has never meant anything to me… It’s the organ of the body that collects and purifies toxins. I think about what I eat a lot, I guess.

    And somehow, the liver is just not appetizing to me, so I’m probably not the best commenter on Foie gras.

    Then… thinking about what happens to ducks in the process, continues to make it inhumane to my thinking.

    I do realize, in this world we live in, humanity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Wine being 8,000 years old and being a civilizing beverage just puts humanity into perspective…

    (I feel like Saturday Night Live’s John Handy.)

  12. Steve,

    Geese are just lucky their look is similar to Swans and Ducks, the connotation to beloved creatures makes it easy for us to be humane and promote this ban. Is force feeding Geese any worse than torturing a fish by sticking a hook through it’s mouth? Cutting the fin off a shark and throwing it back to die in the water? Throwing a live lobster into boiling water? I think not. You mentioned that what baffles you is not the legal issue but the moral one(s). Consider me baffled too… While I absolutely HATE the idea of some entity trying to tell me what is moral and what isn’t, I have to admit I am glad our ancestors came to the conclusion that slavery is immoral (think how “normal” it seemed for centuries). I just pray no one can film and show how much yeast suffer when we punch down the cap of a Pinot Noir tank….

  13. It has been demonstrated with EKGs attached to plants that they do indeed have feelings. In fact, when someone just thought about cutting off a leaf or branch there was a visible reaction on the EKG. Let’s face it, for us to continue to live, something has to die and in the process suffer to some degree. At lease the geese die with full bellies.

  14. Steve, I have been a vegetarian for almost 25 years and I don’t think I am anyone’s ‘moral superior’. In fact I am rather uncomfortable with the label. Like most people, there are plenty of areas for improvement in my diet, and I may even be a bit of a hypocrite in what I will and will not eat (I still eat cheese). It is just that long ago I decided a vegetarian diet was more consistent with my concern for animals and for the environment. It is a decision with which I have always been very comfortable, but I believe others need to decide for themselves based on their own values.

  15. Steve,

    I’m pretty much an omnivore, hampered only by a couple of allergies. My feeling is, if you don’t like something, or find it offensive for any reason, then don’t eat it. My real issue with this whole controversy is one that you touched on briefly – how the rest of our food animals are treated on the way to our tables. Compared to commercial poultry, pig, cattle and even fish operations, foie is small potatoes. So I refuse to listen to anyone on the anti-foie side of the argument who eats any commercially produced and processed animal protein. At least vegetarians and vegans tend to be consistent in their stands.

  16. In general i would rather sit with a dog than people, they’re much more interesting and actually pay attention unlike most people. And as for Foie gras i can take or leave it. But my concern is the looniness of the left coast will actually surface in a civilized part of the country and we’ll have more government interference in our lives. Where does it end? If people are allowed to vote with their feet and not buy the product it would solve itself, but not where the self absorbed judgemental Californicators are involved.

  17. It is certainly a fine line between slaughter and torture. That being said, force feeding a creature in such an aggressive nature as is done with Foie Gras is unconscionable. Clearly this is done purely for the profit of the farmer. Would our consciences be more clear if the bird was simply slaughtered to yield its normal sized liver? Would more birds need to be slaughtered to yield the same tonnage of foie gras?? Would that be better.

    The whole ruling should burn the cultivation and slaughter of animals to its foundations. Far more resources and energy are squandered feeding the animals than the harvesting of them yields. Perhaps it is time to reconsider our nutritional approach and find a more sustainable source of sustenance as opposed to the treatment of food as merely for pleasure.

  18. “We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” Immanuel Kant

  19. Steve,
    In defense of their practice, farmers of foie gras state that geese will ‘naturally’ overconsume before long flights. Ergo, perhaps a new industry of naturally-fattened goose livers should emerge from this debate. Like all other naturally-created, artisan-produced, humanely-raised products… no doubt consumers will appreciate and compensate accordingly.

    Personally, I only want to eat eggs laid by chickens after a day of scratching about for bugs and seeds, and steer which grazed and foraged, etc. I’m not a big fat-eater (I get all my excess fat from olive oil and bread, thank you very much), but if I did eat foie gras I’d like it from a goose harvested humanely after it prepared itself, by choice, for an endurance flight.


  1. NEWS FETCH – JULY 12, 2012 | Wine Industry Insight - [...] Foie gras ban: What do you think? [...]

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