Locked up in shared cages, standing over their own feces, the ducks await their next force-feed in order to supply tasty foie gras to the demands of gourmet restaurants. The animals remain helpless, only leaving these dirty cages for moments during the day, as they await slaughter. This is the gruesome picture presented by many U.S.-based animal rights groups, such as The American Society for Prevention of Animal Cruelty (ASPCA) and In Defense of Animals (IDA). These groups and their supporters embraced extreme campaigns, akin to anti-war protests, in order to take foie gras off menus. New York Magazine’s Marshall Sella calls foie gras “the new fur” as the food has garnered much media attention in the past five or so years.
Now banned in the state of California, and at one point in the city of Chicago (it was repealed in 2008), force-feeding production methods have been painted as inhumane and inherently unethical. In the European Union (EU), Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, several nations banned force-feeding methods, starting in the 1970s, primarily on the grounds of protecting animal welfare. However, can we, as humans, define animal welfare? We are unsure of what animals feel or experience, particularly when it comes to pain. According to Rodenburg, “animal welfare is a balance between behavioral opportunities and animal health.”¹ The 1998 EU report on foie gras production dissects the term and concludes it is “when the animal is coping well there are usually good feelings [then] welfare is good.”² Yet, studies show that ducks and geese show no clear sign of avoidance to gavage.³ Rather, when demonstrating avoidance, if at all, it is when an unfamiliar human feeder performs gavage during the two-week feeding period. No evident indications of aversion occurred when the familiar and regular feeder would appear. In addition, the procedure, of fitting a tube inside the animal’s throat, does not cause discomfort or adverse reactions. Seemingly a cruel and unusual practice to us humans, force-feeding does not affect ducks and geese in the same way due to their different physiology. In spite of this information, with impressions of “good” animal welfare and rampant images of the harsh-looking gavage, governments addressed the prospect of regulating and consequently banning force-feeding practices.
“Animal welfare is a balance between behavioral opportunities and animal health.” -Rodenburg
Unfortunately, similar to the progression of the American cattle industry amongst others, duck and goose farms developed into factory farms. By industrializing foie gras production, farmers gathered profits. They no longer produced food, but products. It is within these spaces of force-feeding that the methods and possibilities for improvement in foie gras production are overlooked. Common cages became an efficient way of housing animals, allowing for poor hygienic conditions and possible illnesses to spread. In using simply corn mash to force-feed, these “farms” mechanized the feeding process. With this, critics argue the use of corn holds great environmental consequences, as corn production, particularly in the U.S., requires mass amount of water, pesticides, etc. As a result, health risks arise for the consumers; foie gras is full of saturated fat and cholesterol. However, these arguments against force-feeding neglect the fundamental reasons why people create and pursue the taste of foie gras, a product affordable to few. In an industry so small, where the buyers are predominantly expensive restaurants, efforts to ban the food continue to grow. The lengths achieved to flat out ban foie gras discredit any form of alternative methods of raising ducks and geese. Thus, it is necessary to separate the product from the factory-like procedures that the industry managed to adopt, before we eliminate a valued culinary creation for good.
¹Rodenburg, T.B., M.B.M. Bracke, J. Berk, J. Cooper, J.M. Faure, D. Guémené., G. Guy, A. Harlander, T. Jones, U. Knierim, K. Kuhnt, H. Pingel, K. Reiter, J. Serviére and M.A.W. Ruis, “Welfare of ducks in European duck husbandry systems,” World’s Poultry Science Journal 61.4 (2005), 644.
²European Union,“Welfare Aspects of Production of Foie Gras in Ducks and Geese,” 3.
³Faure, Jean-Michel, Daniel Guémené, and Gérard Guy, “Is there avoidance of the force feeding procedure in ducks and geese?,” Anim. Res. 50 (2001), 163.