The Ethics of Foie Gras: New Fire for an Old Debate

A lobe of foie gras—fattened duck liver—from La Belle Farms . J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Yesterday, a federal judge struck down the California foie gras ban, written in 2004 and enacted in 2012, that prevented chefs in the state from serving the product at their restaurants. Even today, restaurants have resumed serving the controversial delicacy (though actually producing it within the state is still a no go). The arguments for and against the ban itself—why it was enacted and why it was repealed—are a jumble of legal mumbo-jumbo that I'm not really going to get into, but the news has sparked me to reignite some unfinished discussions on the business of foie gras, a matter which I've spent considerable time researching, thinking, and writing about.

A few years ago I wrote a piece called "The Physiology of Foie: Why Foie Gras is Not Unethical" which made its way around the internet and social media circles at the time. It's gotten tons of comments, most of them well-balanced, thoughtful, and conducive to open constructive debate. Some have been knee-jerk (from both sides), and some have been downright frightening (it's the only article I've ever written that has prompted actual death threats via email).

Pan seared foie..

It's not uncommon to see folks say "I eat meat, but I draw the line at foie gras." I argued that this line of reasoning is inherently flawed. I wrote that piece after talking to dozens of vets, farmers, and chefs, and after I visited a La Belle Farms, one of the two small foie gras farm in upstate New York to check out every level of production with my own eyes. I came away 100% convinced that if you are the type of person who is comfortable with farming animals for human consumption, you ought to be comfortable with the consumption of foie gras.

The way the animals spend the first couple months of their life is no question: The few foie gras farms in this country (three, at the time of this writing, I believe) raise animals that have more space, more comfort, more care, and can engage in more natural behavior than practically any commercially-raised animal on a large-scale poultry, pork, egg, or dairy farm, and are on par with the small-scale farms so championed by humane activists.

A torchon of foie gras..

The real issues arise when you get to the question of gavage, the process of force-feeding the ducks via a long plastic or metal tube inserted into their throats that places the food directly into their crop (the bag of tissue located at the base of their throats). This extra energy gets stored as fat in the ducks' livers. Those livers grow until they are about 10 times their normal size by the time the ducks are harvested.

The problem is, what seems like an inherently cruel process to us—I wouldn't want a tube shoved down my throat, so the duck must hate it—actually loses a lot of its edge once you consider the differences in physiology between water fowl and other animals.

I've already written over 5,000 words on the subject in great detail so I won't get into the nitty gritty here, but it boils down to a few salient facts:

  • Ducks and other fish-eating aquatic birds have extremely tough and stretchy esophogi that are designed for swallowing whole wriggling, spine-covered, live fish. They do it naturally and it causes no discomfort. A thin plastic tube does not either.
  • Ducks breathe through their tongues, not their noses or throats. A duck can hold a solid object in its throat indefinitely and still breathe completely comfortable and normally.
  • Ducks have large crops—pouches of tissue at the base of their throats that hold swallowed food. The amount of food force-fed to a duck during gavage fills up approximately 10% of a crop's total volume.
  • Ducks naturally store excess fat in their skin and livers in anticipation of long fasts during long migrations.

Please read the original article for more details on these facts.

Since that article was published, a few arguments have been brought up that I feel haven't been adequately addressed. Here they are.

The Arguments

Foie gras, by definition, is unnatural. It's a liver that is in a diseased state, and therefore is unethical to consume.

As with most arguments when it comes to foie gras, I think it all comes down to physiology—specifically how physiology differs from animal to animal. Engorged liver in a duck is a disease in the same way that obesity is a disease in humans. It's extra fat stored in tissues around the body, and in both cases, it can negatively affect health and longevity in the long run. Similarly, steers are fed grain-rich diets that give them vastly more calories than they need in order to live full, long, healthy lives. That prime ribeye steak you get at the steakhouse? That's coming from a cow that is unhealthy and diseased in a very similar fashion to a foie gras duck.

Lobes of foie gras, fresh from the duck.

Yet I would argue that this is not inherently cruel. We do have to face the reality that we are raising these animals for slaughter: a long, healthy life is not on the table for them, full stop. In normal practice, we slaughter both the steers and the foie gras ducks long before any ill-effects of their diseased state can affect them, and more importantly, we slaughter them long before they feel any discomfort. Indeed, the disease is entirely reversible: take a foie gras duck off of its diet and eventually its liver will reduce back to normal size.

The big difference between cows and ducks? Cows are just easier to fatten up. Their normal ruminant diet of grass is an extremely inefficient energy source. Give them a bit of grain and they put on a lot of weight very fast. With ducks, fattening takes a bit more effort. Even so, given enough time and sufficient food sources, even in the wild ducks will gorge until their livers grow to many times their normal size (check out Dan Barber's Ted Talk for more info about that).

Even though egg, dairy, pork, poultry, and beef farms may be worse than foie gras farms, foie gras should still be singled out because it's controversial and draws attention to the larger issue.

This is actually quite a strong argument. For those people who believe that farming animals for consumption is unethical under any circumstances (a group of people I find myself agreeing with more and more often), the eventual goal is to shut down all animal farms. Why not start with the easy targets? The ones that are easiest to box into a moral corner, and the ones that offer the least benefit for the general public anyway?

In my last piece, I was called out for painting this as some kind of class war, and that's a fair criticism. Let's forget class for a moment and let's just say that a small group of people with a particular taste for something are an easy target for the rest of the folks who find that particular thing repugnant.

But disagreeing with taste alone is not a strong argument for singling out a group of victims.

When the foie gras production ban was passed in California, the real losers were not the diners and the chefs. It was Guillermo Gonzalez, the owner of Sonoma Artisan Foie, a small, family-owned farm run in much the same way with the same standards of animal care as the two farms in New York's Hudson River Valley. In what world is it fair that a law is passed that singles out one small family-owned farm while allowing the huge commercial farms—the ones that are truly responsible for the most egregious of animal rights violations—continue to thrive uninterrupted?

Ducks in one of the barns at La Belle Farms.

The true irony of the situation, as Dana Goodyear pointed out in the New Yorker, is that even as Sonoma Artisan Foie was closed on July 1st, 2012, the farm, which once housed ducks that lived in open barns and roamed free range through walnut orchards would most likely be replaced by battery chicken farms. It seems tough to argue in favor of a short-sighted law against animal cruelty that effectively increases it.

If we want to win the war against animal cruelty, we need to start at the top of the food chain, not at the bottom.

Foie gras as an industry shouldn't be judged by its best farms, it should be judged by its worst.

On the face of it, this makes sense. Once you leave the small U.S. farms, eating foie raises other ethical questions. Large scale Canadian and French farms are notorious for their cruel practices, like caging the ducks into boxes so small that they can't open their wings, drinking water from channels contaminated with feces and dead ducks. These are the types of farms where all of the PETA videos you see are filmed, and they are atrocious by any standard.

So the argument goes: If there's an industry that causes hundreds of thousands of animals to suffer unnecessarily, don't we have a moral obligation to shut it down, even if there are a few examples of farms in which such atrocities don't occur?

I would respond with an emphatic no. If every industry were judged by their worst practitioners, we'd have nothing. No farms, no doctors, no lawyers, no manufacturing of any kind, literally nothing. It may well be that foie gras farming has a higher ratio of bad farmers to good, but that does not mean that the good farmers should be chastised for the poor behavior of their peers. Indeed, it should be the exact opposite: we should take every opportunity to celebrate those farmers who, in the face of easier profits and faster production, still deign to do right by their animals and produce foie gras in the most humane way possible. So long as you are buying your foie gras products only from these producers (La Belle Farms and Hudson Valley Foie Gras are among them), then you're doing right by the animals and the farmers.

Imagine if California were to pass a law banning the sale and production of all shoes because there are some shoes that are produced in factories under slave labor-like conditions. The proper thing to do is ban the practice, not the product. Write up a bill that engages the subtleties of animal husbandry and meat production in an informed way and guarantees that all foie sold has to come from farms with certain welfare standards and I'd be right behind it. As it stands, all three of the remaining farms in the U.S. fit the bill.

The Debate Doesn't Stop Here

I know that this is such a passionate, hot topic that more than likely nobody is going to be convinced by any of this, and I'm fully prepared for the fallout my inbox is likely to receive, but, well, there are so many emotion-fueled debates on the subject that I can't help but feel an obligation to try and inject some rational, fact-based arguments into the discourse. Whether you agree with the conclusions or not is up to you, and I welcome any and all equally rational counter-arguments. There's a lot to talk about here.

The irony is that these days I rarely order meat when eating out. You're more likely to find me tucking into a big plate of vegetables than a steak. I can't tell you that I'm never going to eat meat at a restaurant, but you can bet your boots that on those nights when I do choose to consume animal products, ethically raised American foie gras will be right at top of my list.