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ALL ABOUT FOOD: Foie gras debate comes to town

About a month ago, Terry and her, husband, Mark, walked down to French 75 for dinner. As they approached the door, they were greeted by a woman who handed them a piece of paper, which she was most eager for them to read before they dined.

After ordering martinis, they checked out this billet doux and were surprised to discover it was a plea to avoid eating foie gras.

Animal rights activists have been pursuing this issue for a number of years, claiming inhumane treatment of ducks and geese.

A number of people in the restaurant were talking to their waiters about this, and Chef Mitch himself came out to chat with us.

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He was upset because he felt the people on his doorstep were misinformed and not up to date on the current methods for fattening up the livers of these birds.

Mitch said he buys his livers exclusively from Hudson Valley Foie Gras, the largest producer in the United States, which claims that it uses humane practices and allows reporters and any other interested parties to inspect every aspect of the process.

To be honest, Terry was easily persuaded and ordered the foie gras, as did a number of other customers nearby. Feeling a little guilty afterward, we decided to research this matter more carefully and find out the current state of the controversy.

PETA, the Human Society and the ASPCA continue to oppose the harvesting of foie gras.

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They maintain that force-feeding (gavage) to create enlarged livers is cruel, painful and can cause serious injuries to the birds. The insertion of a feeding tube itself can scratch the throat and esophagus causing irritations and wounds, while enlargement of the liver can cause ducks to become deathly ill, struggle to walk and breathe, and to vomit up undigested food.

They also object to individual cages and poor sanitation. They claim that an excessively fattened liver becomes diseased and should not be consumed for health reasons.

The sale and production of foie gras produced by force-feeding will become illegal in California in 2012. It is already illegal in many European countries as well as Turkey and Argentina. However, these countries do not have a significant industry in the farming and production of this product.

On the other side of the controversy are the farmers, typified by Hudson Valley Foie Gras. They raise birds using the traditional model rather than an industrial one.

“That means everything from the egg hatching to the 21-day force-feeding period (at the end of their lives), to the slaughter, happens on the same farm tended by the same workers. We also use a ‘humane handling’ consultant who audits our farming practices and processing plant procedures," says spokesman Rick Bishop.

Most foie gras producers do not consider their methods cruel, insisting that wild ducks and geese naturally ingest large amounts of food to gain weight in preparation for migration. Also, they don’t have a gag reflex and naturally store large amounts of food in their gullets for long periods of time.

Michael Ginor, owner of Hudson Valley, claims that force-feeding is not uncomfortable, which is important because, “a stressed or hurt bird won’t eat and digest well, and produce a foie gras."

Of course, the reality is that most animals raised for human consumption are overfed.

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A reporter from the New York Village Voice, Sarah DiGregorio, visited the farm in February of this year after speaking to a vet, Dr. Holly Cheever from the Humane Society, who was sure DiGregorio would be witnessing a cover up.

Cheever had toured the farm in 1997 and, “found the trip to be very upsetting." She went again in 2007 and found things were much better but felt the tour had been “choreographed" for her inspection.

DiGregorio, although expecting the worst, could find no evidence of abuse. For instance, the older ducks that were being force-fed showed less aversion to humans than the younger ducks, which is hard to reconcile if the feeding was torturous. The feeding process itself takes 10 to 15 seconds.

"[The birds] waddled calmly away, looking unfazed: no breathing problems, no vomiting and no trouble walking."

After 21 days of gavage, the birds are slaughtered. The reporter asked to inspect an esophagus of one of the dead birds to see if it had been damaged in any way but could find no evidence of this. It was “glossy, smooth and thick and when turned inside out, showed no abrasions, punctures or bruises."

Ruling out a choreographed maneuver, she randomly picked out several others from the bin and again found no damage.

The idea that an excessively fat liver is diseased has been debunked by several scientists.

They maintain that, although a grossly fattened liver isn’t natural, it is not a sign of disease. After feeding is stopped and the liver shrinks, there is no necrosis and it still functions normally, removing toxins.

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Recently, the American Veterinary Medical Assn. House of Delegates was forwarded resolutions from its Animal Welfare Committee to oppose the production methods for foie gras.

The association declined to take a position saying that observation and practical experience indicate a minimum of adverse effects. After sending delegates to visit farms, one indicated his personal position changed drastically after the visit.

He testified that tube feeding is less distressing than taking the rectal temperature of a cat and urged the association to take a position based on science, not emotion, while cautioning against anthropomorphism.

This is a difficult issue, and it’s best for each person to decide for himself. Most animal rights activists are vegetarians. They would have to be. Is the treatment of geese and ducks any more reprehensible than the way we raise and slaughter chickens, cows and pigs?

Most of us have us have decided that man cannot live by eggplant alone. And if anything is worth the guilt, it’s got to be foie gras.


ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ owned A La Carte for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at themarkos755@yahoo.com


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