The Brouhaha Over Foie Gras

The Brouhaha Over Foie Gras

TERMINATOR: Arnold Schwarzenegger wants California's one-farm foie gras industry to change its ways, or else.

He-man California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who didn't get to look the way he does by cutting back on protein, last month approved a law mandating that producers change the "inhumane" process by which duck foie gras is made in California by 2012 or else go out of business. The fact that California only has one foie gras producer—Sonoma Foie Gras— is not going to lose Ah-nold many votes, but it's clear he has caved in to a curiously un-Republican notion about an issue not likely to go away soon.

Legislation is being considered in Oregon, New York, Illinois and Massachusetts wholly to ban the sale of foie gras or even to possess it; Israel's Supreme Court recently ruled that the force-feeding of ducks and geese violates laws against animal cruelty; even Charlie Trotter of Chicago, who happily serves beef, pork, chicken, squab and lamb, has said he will no longer serve foie gras in his restaurant.

Much of the protest has been led by the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which maintains the process is cruel and painful, contending that "the force-feeding process, along with confinement in small cages, causes suffering to these animals that is worse than practices used in industrial chicken and cattle farming."

But as Guillermo and Junny Gonzalez, owners of Sonoma Foie Gras, who emigrated from El Salvador in 1985, explain of their production: "The ducklings are received when they are one day old. They spend the first 5-8 weeks in a barn, under heat lamps and on bedding of wood shavings while they develop their feathers. They walk about and have access to natural feed and water.

Once they have enough feathering, they are brought out to the walnut orchards, where they continue to roam free range for about two months. Here again, they have access to all natural feed (no hormones or antibiotics), water and shade. During the final two weeks, they are housed in temperature-controlled barns, where they are kept in groups of about 12 ducks per pen measuring about 33 square feet. They are tube fed twice per day by the same feeder, using a pre-measured quantity of feed."

Which sounds anything but cruel. People who object to the slaughter of all animals have every right to their personal point of view. But to suggest that ducks and geese suffer from the process of liver enlargement is not to understand nature's own mechanics of the matter. In fact, most reasonable assessments of the process, which dates back 4,000 years, begin with the fact that ducks and geese are chosen for foie gras production principally because they are configured by nature to grow livers large enough to carry energy-rich fat, needed during their arduous migrations. For that reason ducks and geese have no gorge mechanism; mammals, which do, cannot possibly consume—or be forced to consume—food fed through a funnel. Ducks and geese have neck tubes and no teeth, so feed is not chewed up, in order to facilitate fast consumption of large quantities of grain.

There is simply no evidence that the animals are traumatized by the feedings; nor is there any pain attached to the method. They are, like cattle and chickens, raised for slaughter, not captured and forced to eat themselves to death.

Other people might object that fattening the liver is in itself unnatural. But why is it any more so than fattening steers or pigs or chickens bred and raised for market? Raising a leaner animal for slaughter is not more humane than raising a fat, muscular one.

With only three foie gras producers in the U.S.— Sonoma and Hudson Valley Foie Gras and La Belle Farm in New York—and an overall consumption of the product in the U.S. of just 420 tons per year (compared with 17,500 in France), it is not likely that Charlie Trotter's and other chefs' refusal to serve foie gras or legislatures' misguided attempts to stop production will do little more than put three farms out of business. But it is a signal that reason must prevail in the American market, where peanuts are yanked from school cafeterias because of a few children's allergies and where radical nutritionists wish to restrict everyone's diet rather than give us guidance on what's good for us.