Foie Gras, Misinformation & Downright Lies

A small news item raised an issue I had thought to write about later. But maybe now is a good time to discuss this issue. Animal activists are launching protests against upscale restaurants and cities known for their foodie culture. These well-intentioned but overwrought people are protesting the serving and eating of foie gras, which is French for fatty liver. This has been considered a European culinary delicacy for a long time, a sign of affluence, and like so many things people use to show off, an acquired taste.

Look, if you want to be a vegetarian, even if it’s for political reasons, that’s fine with me. And if you’re going to protest the cruel treatment of food animals, you should start with really cruel operations like the feed lots outside the processing plants for Smithfield, Hormel, Tyson, Purdue and United Food Group. Now that’s cruelty! These animals are in crowded conditions, eating unnatural food, standing around in inches of excrement, butt to nose and shoulder to hip. It is these operations that also are the biggest source of contamination and disease.

But before you protest foie gras, get your facts straight. Maybe you don’t like this food, and that’s okay, too. But before you say it’s produced cruelly, don’t listen to the activist, listen to the farmers. I’ve seen the birds on the small farms where foie gras is produced. Compared to the feed lots of the big food operations, these places are heaven.

First, we have to consider the anatomy of birds. It is not the same as the anatomy of mammals like us. You might be saying that’s obvious, but apparently it isn’t. It’s the failure to understand this which is the basis for so much of the protesters’ talking points.The key difference is that the two main tubes of the throat, the esophagus which leads to the stomach and the trachea leading to the lungs, NEVER meet. That’s very important. You see, the protesters maintain that the feeding process chokes the birds, conjuring up images of what would happen if someone stuck a tube down our throats. But because those two tubes never meet, the birds’ breathing ability is never affected during the feeding process. Also that process takes less than 30 seconds.

Why do this at all? Somewhere back in the mists of time, someone discovered that fatty livers of ducks and geese were delicious. But it must have been in the fall that this discovery was made, because another difference of birds is they don’t overeat. And like most animals, extra food is stored as fat in a conversion process in the liver, where most of the fat remains. Since the birds don’t naturally overeat, the only way to get more food into them is by force feeding. Wild birds would load up on fuel before migration. But these are domesticated birds. They don’t migrate, so they don’t load up on fat to burn during the long flight.

These birds are usually raised on small farms where they get a great deal of quality care. And it is that great care which also helps in the production of a flavorful liver. These birds are raised for food. They are not Donald Duck or Mother Goose. They will be killed, cleaned, packaged, frozen and sent to restaurants and grocery stores all over the country.

Here’s what really happens. In a room in the barn, usually next to the bird pens, hay is laid down on a clean floor. Suspended from the rafters or ceiling is a large funnel, the top is about waist high. Connected to the spout of the funnel is a flexible tube made of PVC or acrylic. Both have been thoroughly cleaned and sterilized. The birds are rounded up for easy catching. A bucket of food pellets is placed on the floor next to the end of the funnel tube. A bird is caught and held securely and brought to the feeding station. The farmer gently tilts up the bird’s head, pries open the beak and quickly and smoothly puts the feeding tube in the bird’s throat. Remember, the bird is not choked and is able to breathe. In a swift motion, the farmer scoops up food from the bucket and pours it into the funnel. The food flows into the bird’s stomach, the tube is removed and bird released.

Now the birds don’t like this. Like any living creature, it doesn’t like to be messed with. But farmers know sometimes they have to do things to benefit the animals that the animals don’t like, such as give medications, remove sex organs, trim horns and similar things. Any pet owner can sympathize. But I want to be clear, these birds are not hurt in the process and it is not cruel.

If you don’t think people should eat meat, I can understand that. But we all have the right to make that choice for ourselves, not have it dictated to us by a bunch of uneducated activists. Eating foie gras is no different than eating chicken or beef livers in things like braunschweiger, liverwurst, pate or most tureens. Those old french chefs who made this discovery were right — this stuff is delicious properly prepared and spiced.

If you want to protest animal cruelty, march outside the local supermarket.