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Foie Gras: Making Informed Choices

04 Dec 2009, Posted by Jennifer Iannolo in farm, news & buzz

foie-platThis past February, an article came out in the Village Voice about foie gras (Is Foie Gras Torture?), and whether or not ducks are being tortured to produce this delicacy. The debate has raged on for years, which sparked my initial rant in The Duck Stops Here. What I think author Sarah DiGregorio brings to light with this piece, however, is something that applies universally to food, and in my opinion, is a method we should all use: Know where your food comes from. Know how it’s produced. One of the leading doctors raging against the foie gras machine has never actually set foot on a foie gras farm; she simply perpetuates the propaganda from assumptions.

If you’ve ever watched a PETA video, of course the images are disturbing. That’s their purpose. PETA is going to sensationalize whatever they find in order to make a good video, because they have a very specific intent: They want you to stop eating animals altogether. And that is their prerogative, but when they are harassing members of the public (and their children!) they become their own terrorist force. Bricks have been thrown into restaurant windows, and patrons have been harassed on their way in the door. And you all know about the pies that get thrown. Are they following the equation that two wrongs make a right? How is that going to help, exactly?

I’ve met many artisanal farmers over the years, and to a person they care passionately about their work, their livestock, and for raising them in a humane way. In the end, it makes the food taste better. A stressed out cow or duck is going to have some very tough meat for you to chew, so it is in the farmer’s best interest to keep his livestock calm and happy.

Hudson Valley Foie Gras seems no different. I’ve talked to Marcus Henley, the farm’s manager, numerous times over the past few years, and he has invited me to come see for myself. I haven’t yet had the time to do so, but I will get there, because I want to know where all my food comes from. I’ve done the same with heirloom tomatoes, cows and pigs. I invite you to do the same.

What are your thoughts on this issue?

Photo: Kelly Cline

  • I totally agree with you: consumers need to know where their food comes from, how it’s treated, how it’s processed, and how it’s delivered. And, it goes beyond just meat – I’m sure that there are corn or wheat or other vegetable producers that have disgusting and shocking conditions, and even harm animals in the local ecosystem.

    The current legal actions by the Humane Society relating to Hudson Valley Foie Gras. I consider myself an animal advocate, but actions against a legally-operating family farm are misguided, misinformed,
    and without merit. Furthermore, humanizing the farmed animals as cute, cuddly creatures being abused is a perfect way to shock their audience. But, it would be great if everyone would educate themselves with both sides of the story. Here’s a great video by Anthony Bourdain that shows the other side of how foie gras ducks are raised.

    Echoing your comments about PETA, I think that the term “terrorist” fits perfectly. PETA judges meat producers and eaters as somehow “bad,” and then attempts to terrorize them and their families through the actions you mention. Focusing on foie gras production may help garner a spotlight for PETA and other organizations, but this failure to target their efforts on REAL examples of animal mistreatment is incredibly disappointing.

    Efforts against foie gras have actually encouraged me to reach out to Hudson Valley Foie
    Gras
    and place my first ever direct order with them! And, it has also encouraged me to reach out to my California legislators and ask that they repeal the 2012 foie gras ban.

    Thanks for a great post!

  • Joanne Chang

    I have not seen a PETA video but I’ve spoken to plenty of people who lived in the South of France who have seen it done a family farm and refuse to eat foie gras. I have spoken to investigators who have set foot in farms in Quebec and seen videos taken in Belgium (none by PETA). Everything I’ve seen and heard reveal the same systematic abuse that even foodies do not deny. I’ve also requested visits to farms in Quebec but was turned down.

    Ducks (water fowl) are kept out of water. An anthoropomorphist like Sarah DiGregorio may think that ducks are as happy as she is when they are out of water. But Sarah is not a water fowl, nor does has she spent any time studying them. So how would she know? Ducks need to fly and swim in order to thrive. To keep a duck out of water continuously is like putting Ms. DiGregorio in a tub of water all day until her skin starts to disintergrate. Ducks go blind and their health deteriorate when kept out of water. Webbed feed are for swimming, not for living on dry land.

    And then there’s the issue with force feeding. I don’t think this is something that the foodies deny (with or without video documentary). Force feeding a duck with a metal pipe until his liver grows to 8 times it’s normal size is torture. But who am I to determine what torture is? I know someone who ties their dog in the yard without shelter through all weather conditions and he believes the dog is happy. Perhaps no one ever experiences torture if no one empathizes with them.

    Dr. Ian Duncan, one of the world’s leading expert on Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph, believes that ducks suffer tremendously in foie gras production. If I were to take a scientific approach to determine what animal suffering looks like, I’d believe Dr. Duncan and not a foodie writer for the Village Voice.

  • Thank you both for these thoughtful replies.

    Joanne, I agree that everyone needs to do as much homework as they can, and looking at one-off opinions is not enough. Thanks for pointing me to the information of Dr. Duncan.

    Jason, what disturbs me is that PETA seems to have declared war on anyone producing an animal product, and their tactics do nothing but establish them as extremist. Information — distributed more objectively — would likely yield them more in the long-run, but they’ve made their position clear.

  • Dear Jennifer,

    I do think you have hit the right nail on the right head. Hearsay and repeated opinions are not the foundation of making educated choices. Up close and personal experience is best.

    Since I live in the southwest of France, and have for 22 years, I can speak with some authority on the human side of the humane treatment of fatted ducks. The people I know here who raise animals for food, whether pigs for charcuterie, cattle for beef, chickens for eggs, bees for honey and yes, ducks for meat and foie gras are the most caring cautious farmers I have ever met. Their livelihoods depend on it.

    The key, here in Gascony, is that these are all ‘ARTISAN’ food producers; not a factory, industrial or corporate bone in their bodies. I recently spent a morning on a farm where ducks are raised. After working in the butcher shop learning to butcher the valuable meat, I am affirmed in MY own informed opinion that these birds do not suffer nor are stressed.

    My own small flock of 5 ducks gives me first hand experience with the critters and they prefer grazing the grass in the pasture to swimming in an available pond. Nor do these ducks fly. They are not the same breed as a wild migratory mallard. Bred since the 14th Century, Rouens are efficient meat producers weighing in at 5 kg (11 lbs) before finishing and about 6.5kg (14.3lbs) after.

    thanks for allowing for a civilized discussion on your blog.

  • I have a very strong opinion on this topic.

    I would like to preface by saying that I have personally witnessed extensive property damage suffered by purveyors of foie gras when I lived in San Francisco and heard (second hand) the threats that were leveled against the owners of Sonoma Foie Gras.

    Do those who oppose the consumption of foie gras have an awareness that the AVMA will not condemn the practice?http://www.animalpeoplenews.org/05/9/avmaRefuses9.05.htm

    I would like to echo the previous statements about the production of artisanal food. As an expat in Tuscany I am surrounded by food that is raised artisanally and there truly is a difference in taste that reflects the way the animals are raised. From the rearing to the feeding to the slaughter methods…care is taken every step of the way because adrenalin in the animals’ tissues results in poorer quality flavor.

    Here in Italy I need not worry about my foie gras being taken away, but its availability to me when I fly back to the US is dwindling every year.

    Have those who oppose foie gras ever watched those ducks eat? Lordie, I get called a Hoover for how I can pack it away and their appetites amaze me. (during normal feeding)

    I will continue to eat foie gras and I will not feel guilty about it.

    @ Joanne…when a person has an established viewpoint she will generally search for and find evidence that supports her viewpoint. It is a very unusual person that researches both sides of an issue in a fair and balanced manner.

  • As my twitter bio used to say “I was ethically opposed to Foie Gras, then I tried it…”

    I’ve learned quite a bit since then, and from everything I’ve read these ducks and geese live pretty good lives, and even moreso when you compare them to your standard chicken operation.

    I’m not ever giving up animal products (again), but I do want to make sure the animals are treated humanely, most Foie-Ops meet that criteria.

  • Dear Jennifer,

    One important piece of information your readers should know when making informed choices about eating foie gras are the potential health risks. According to a Web MD article researchers say people with diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis may want to avoid eating foie gras.

    Here is a link to the 2007 article:
    http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/news/20070620/healthy-reason-to-forgo-foie-gras

    Best,

    Ralph

  • Kat

    Hello Jennifer,

    There are many activists and vegetarians that are very opposed to PETA’s actions. Most food connoisseurs and foie gras farmers will use PETA’s reputation to their advantage in order to gain more favor. However, there are activists and people out there that are not sided with anyone other than the simple welfare of animals.
    For a person that is not a scientist, a veterinarian or a professional that is reading Ms. DiGregorio’s comments and watching Anthony Bourdain’s video posted, it is very easy to believe what they say. I agree with you, We need to know where our food comes from and find out information for ourselves. But you have to understand that the information that you go find out at farms and information that you find out from PETA is very controlled information. You need to understand the animal’s biology before saying or believing that farmers are really taking care of their animals.
    Anthony Bourdain spoke to a veterinarian. I watched the whole video, and anyone who has taken advance biology courses will know that what he is saying is not correct. He says it is normal for birds to store fat in their livers but not for mammals. The liver is a fat storing organ in every vertebrate and it is also not a muscle, therefore even if the animal was going through a lot of stress, the meat of the liver will not be tough. He says that farm ducks go through less stress than wild ducks “in feeding situations” which only means that they are not starving like sometimes in the wild from food outage (obviously because they are overfeeding the ducks).
    The ducks you saw in the video are sterile. Because they are an artificially inseminated cross between a male Muscovy drake (Cairina moschata) and a female Mullard duck (Anas Platyrhynchos) the offspring is therefore called a “mule duck”. This cross is made for many reasons, one of them is because Muscovy hormones normally produce higher levels of corticosterone and are more suscepible to stress than anas platyrhynchos, therefore reject gavage more sharply; another reason is because their offspring can grow much larger than normal duck species.
    I understand it is not my job to educate you, or anyone. The facts are definitely out there, but most of the time I understand they are manipulated to “convert” others into another way of life. So I thought I would give you a bit of the unbiased biological facts that froie gras entails.

    What froie gras is, is a liver from a duck that was suffering severe hepatic lipidosis/steatosis. Before you think this is a fake disease…hepatic comes from the hepatic portal veins and hepatic artery that supplies the liver with blood and oxygen. Steatosis is a cellular degeneration in the liver that causes overproduction of lipids in the cells, specially in the cytoplasm. I am not vegetarian, however, as a student who has observed and studied most of the animal kingdom very excessively for the past few years, I can assure you that the only way an animal can suffer from severe and chronic hepatic lipidosis or hepatic steatosis in their natural environment is if they suffer from ventromedian hypothalamic lesions (ventromedian nucleus in the hypothalamus is associated with satiety, lessions to this nucleus will cause over eating and obesity in animals, any injury to the nucleus will cause the animal to over eat and never feel satiated).
    Hepatic steatosis is reversable, the small percentage of geese and ducks that gorge themselves for the winter and happen to go through steatosis, stop gorging themselves after they start their long migration and once they start, they won’t eat for a long time so their liver will never enlarge like that naturally and they get better during or after migration. Hepatic steatosis is a liver disease that can cause the bird obesity, diabetes, malnutrition and organ failure. Therefore, as clean as the space these ducks are put in, and as sanitized and smooth as the tubes that they force feed them with are, they are still diseased livers. When a liver suffers from steatosis and it enlarges to such an enormous size, there is barely any space for any other organ to function properly. The lungs among other vital organs can be crushed by the liver and they will have difficulty breathing.
    Anatidae are known because of their shiny feathers that seem to repel/shed water very easily due to a special oil production by their hormones. Stress causes an increase on corticosterone, which decreases the amount of oil produced. This makes the feathers fall, stick together and loose their shine. Anatidae are also very clean creatures in terms of grooming. If you have observed avians long enough, you will notice that the first sign of sickness on birds is in their feathers. Feathers that loose their shine and stick to each other, are a big sign of not only stress but organ failure in avians. The ducks I saw in the video, had not gone through the final stages of overfeeding obviously because they were still fit enough and healthy enough to stand, however by the color and the abundance of the feathers, you can tell these birds were under stress.
    You said it yourself, stressed animals will give you bad quality food. However, this only applies to muscle. You see, when an animal is on stress, the muscles go through constant spasms and contractions, therefore, the muscle becomes tougher. organs like the liver are specialized to store fat (on all vertebrates and even some invertebrates). Even if the anatidae that undergo gavage undergo a lot of stress, the liver will not suffer any texture consequences. This is why there is two stomachs in most birds, the food is already processed by the tight muscles in the gizzards and the first stomach by the time it is processed by the liver. The liver is not a muscle, so it doesn’t break down solids. This is why the liver, if eaten naturally has a different texture than other organs and muscles (mainly because it stores fat but also because it is a gland). After two weeks of being overfed, the liver is already sick, and since all vertebrate livers have more than one function, you will see the bird slowly shutting down, once the liver is sick, the animal will slowly begin to die a very uncomfortable and many times painful death. Of course, they are butchered before their bodies shut down. However, from my knowledge of the disease and the size of their liver before butchering, I can assure you as good as the farmer is to the duck there are many ducks that will die before butchered from suffocation (due to lungs being crushed by the liver) or other organ failure that causes it to bleed internally.
    The facts are out there for you to find. Unbiased facts, scientific observations untied to profit based corporations. People that research out of curiosity, like me, and other biologist, and that share their information with the world, with no apprehension, preaching or lecturing for their decisions.
    There is no way you can make force feeding sound like a harmless process. It is called force feeding for a reason. The fact of the matter is, a diseased liver, will be a diseased liver, weather it is taken out of a factory duck, or whether these ducks were raised more humanely in an “artisanal farm” . The process itself is very disrespectful for the animal because of the biological consequences it undergoes before butchering.

    After you visit the foie gras farm, maybe you should go to a library and read up on some biology books. The liver, it’s an amazing organ. Also do some research on ducks, they are very social and very wonderful creatures. Again, I’m not vegetarian, but I don’t want people to be making a fool of themselves by claiming that they truly know the facts just by reading a few articles on the internet.