Meat Musings: Why Foie Gras Bans Are Foolish

Meat Musings: Why Foie Gras Bans Are Foolish

It’s a good thing I’m not a vegetarian.

Exploring the history of a family of butchers would be tough. I’m planning to look into the background of the Kornmehl family profession, to see how it was regarded in Freud’s Vienna, but my research has also spurred me to contemplate contemporary issues surrounding the ingestion of flesh.

Aiming for moderation

Although I was never a vegetarian, I’ve flirted with going meat-free. Okay, it was more of a polite nod than a flirt: I decided to give up eating red meat for a couple of years. Then I started writing a guidebook to San Antonio and Austin and was invited to try a Ruth’s Chris Steak House. I’d never been to any of the restaurants but had heard great things about them. Yes, I could have ordered fish or chicken, but it seemed wrong to judge a steakhouse on the basis of a dish that wasn’t a specialty. So I went for the petite filet mignon, grilled in butter.

It was delicious. I waited for the repercussions. I was sure that, after two years of red meat abstinence, I would feel sick.  I felt energized instead. Every part of my body seemed to be shouting, “WHY HAVE YOU BEEN HOLDING OUT ON US?”

Moderation has been my — theoretical — motto since then. Hey, I’m a food journalist. I need to be open to as many tastes as possible.

This became clear on a press trip to Las Vegas that included a writer for Bon Appetit who was vegetarian but didn’t only review vegetarian restaurants. One member of our group asked him how he could judge restaurants on the basis of a fraction of their offerings. He said the main criterion he used was how well they accommodate vegetarians. That’s really what you want to know when you’re reading a review of a barbecue joint, right?

Maybe I would have been more sympathetic if he hadn’t been such a self-righteous prig, or if hadn’t regaled us all at breakfast with a description of how his urine smelled —  in terms he might have used to analyze the nose of a Chardonnay — after eating a particular type of asparagus we’d  all enjoyed the night before.

Talk about oversharing.

Ethics of meat eating

I eat meat and I wear leather and yet I consider myself an animal welfare advocate. I wrote a dog blog for years that got very political about issues like rescue and the raising of dogs for meat in China.

It’s hard for me to justify these contradictions — and that’s the topic of a wonderfully thought-provoking book by Hal Herzog, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. Temple Grandin, author of Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals and advocate for humane conditions in slaughterhouses, blurbed it: “Everybody who is interested in the ethics of the relationships between human and animals should read this book.”

I won’t go into a lengthy review here but I will describe the arc of one chapter, “In the Eyes of the Beholder: The Comparative Cruelty of Cockfights and Happy Meals.”  Herzog starts out by discussing the preconceived notions he had about cockfighting and its cruelty.  As he attends various clandestine cockfights in the southeast U.S. and comes to know the participants, he introduces us to owners who consider the roosters prized pets, hand feed them and provide them with the best medical care. They believe their charges are involved in fair fights.

Ultimately, Herzog does not sanction cockfighting. But he puts the treatment of the gamecocks into perspective, contrasting it with the very short and brutish lives of factory farmed chickens, which he calls “meat machines.”

A broiler chicken’s bones cannot keep up with the explosive growth of its body. Unnaturally large breasts torque a chicken’s legs, causing lameness, ruptured tendsons, and twisted leg syndrome.

And:

The living conditions of the animals destined to become chicken nuggets are Dante-esque. The chicks will never see sun nor sky. Because they are so top-heavy, broiler chickens spend most of their day lying down, often in litter contaminated in excrement.

These are just of a few of the less graphic details.

Which brings me, finally, to foie gras.

A few elite geese

Since foie gras was banned in Chicago and, more recently, in California — this article from the Chicago Tribune goes into the history of both bans in great detail —  there has been endless discussion about whether the process of creating it is cruel. For those who are not familiar with this food item which — full disclosure — I like very much, foie gras is the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened through a method called gavage, or force feeding.

Some people argue that geese don’t have a gag reflex like humans; others talk about foie gras farms in France that geese literally flock to because they love to gorge themselves on the yummy, abundant, high-caloric grain.

I tend to think that, for the most part, the practice is cruel. But that’s not the point. Banning a delicacy that few people can afford and most people know little about is a distraction that trivializes the genuine importance of fighting to improve living conditions for a far, far greater number of animals — including the broilers that Herzog describes.

It’s kind of like PETA — which I loathe for many reasonscomplaining when President Obama killed a fly.   It makes animal welfare look ludicrous.

Pick your fights, folks.

Can foie gras be kosher?

One more thing: Although I don’t keep kosher — see filet mignon in butter,  enjoyment of, above — this is a blog about a kosher butcher shop, so I wondered whether there was such a thing as kosher foie gras. Surprise: That’s a contentious topic among Jews, too.  One influential rabbi ruled that there is no restriction against force-feeding geese, but the author of this article argues that Jewish law prevents cruelty to animals, ergo a food created by a process that is cruel to animals can’t be kosher. I think she makes a good case. Banning foie gras may not make sense in the larger scheme of things, at least not until conditions are vastly improved in factory farms, but religion is supposed to legislate morality, not quibble about degrees of discomfort.

22 Responses to Meat Musings: Why Foie Gras Bans Are Foolish

  1. Philip says:

    Interestingly enough Israel was once one of the largest producers of Foie Gras in the world, before the production was banned by the Supreme Court in 2003. Before that it was common to find foie gras in even inexpensive shish-kabob style restaurants, a very common fast-food style in Israel. Once production was banned it became fairly scarce, but eventually made a come-back a few years later in the higher-end restaurants that apparently sourced foie gras from overseas (production was banned, not consumption). It’s still less common, even in expensive restaurants, but it’s not uncommon these days either (certainly it is much more common in Israel to find kosher foie gras than in the US).

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      That is interesting. I’m curious: How can these higher end restaurants call the foie gras they serve kosher if they haven’t supervised its production? Or maybe they don’t call it kosher. Where then does the kosher foie gras in Israel come from?

  2. I’m interested to see what kind of a hornet’s nest you stir up here. I have the same mixed feelings you do. Love foie gras–not that I can afford to run out for a snack whenever I get the urge–but also don’t like mistreatment of animals.
    How can I, who think of myself as a caring person, eat lamb or veal? It’s a puzzlement.
    You have found peace with “pick your battles.” I think perhaps most of us tend to “ignore the battle.”

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      So far, no hornets, but I’ve got the DDT ready! I don’t know that I’ve found peace, and I definitely ignore a lot of battles. I do tend to avoid veal because it’s more widespread than foie gras, and not ordering it might make a difference. If enough people avoid it, then restaurateurs will get the point. Lamb is not my favorite anyway, so that’s an easy decision.

  3. Martha says:

    Over forty-years ago I had my first and only experience with kosher foie gras, served at the Tel Aviv Hilton. Sure, I was young and had an underdeveloped palate, but give me plain ordinary kosher chopped (chicken, beef, or steer) liver any day.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      With or without schmaltz? I like it all — hey, it’s part of my job description. Thanks for coming by, Martha. Nice to see you here.

  4. Kevin Myers says:

    Living in Cocke county Tennesse, an area known nationally for cock fighting and corruption, I know what Herzog is talking about. Reconciling the way I feel about the people that practice this sport with the conditions of the poultry farms that dot the same landscape is not an easy one. Dealing in minutia of these issues tends to obscure the elephant in the room.

    Enjoying your new blog Edie!

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      That’s the problem with those of us who are interested in animal welfare — there’s only so much time and psychic energy and we have to choose our priorities. Thanks for coming by, Kevin. I’m glad you’re liking what you read.

  5. The Herzog & Grandin books are both excellent, excellent reads! What I like about Grandin’s books is that she makes no bones about people eating meat, she just wants the animals to be treated more humanely AND comes up with farming & slaughterhouse solutions. It’s a pity that more companies have not adopted her technologies, but it takes a long time to change attitudes.

    I’m with you on the foie gras. Yum!

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      It’s good to be able to have a discussion that’s nuanced. As you say, Grandin takes it as a given that we eat meat and then works around that to accommodate her love of animals. As Herzog says in his introduction, there’s something in the book to irritate everyone. I found myself annoyed at various points — which means he was doing his job.

      If I wasn’t a food writer I don’t know how often I could afford foie gras — always one way to resolve a moral dilemma. It’ll never get banned in Arizona, though…

  6. Mary Haight says:

    I am not a vegetarian either, though I don’t choose to eat beef very often and I stick to organic chicken or whatever hoping the animals have a somewhat better life. I do not fool myself into thinking they are all out frolicking in green pastures – we don’t have the luxury of affording that much land.

    I think we as animal advocates need to understand the mechanics of animal’s body so we don’t anthropomorphize but rather base our understanding on what the animal is going through according to their physiology.

    Animals environments should be pleasant, their lives as close to normal as possible. This might be considered unreasonable by many farmers. It’s the locking them away in a dark barn that got people mad about veal, plus, baby cows are sweet and blue-eyed. We see that beyond the feeding tube, they don’t want the ducks in the sunlight or able to move around much until they are slaughtered.

    This argument may seem like a distraction, and I, as you know, agree that PeTA has shot themselves in the foot so often they have no feet to stand on anymore, but I think it is good to question “standard” practices and struggle with each other to try to make some sense of what’s going on and what isn’t in the care and feeding of what we eat. Most people ignore what they don’t care about so I’m sure while some may be smirking at this topic, most shrug and move on.
    Thing is, if the video (mentioned below) is true, on what basis did the courts decide that the treatment of geese/ducks raised for their livers was cruel?

    It is true what you say about the limits of our energies. We choose our battles – some pick tail-docking, some breed legislation, others, foie gras. How we choose to participate in animal advocacy is an individual matter and maybe one Freud could have better interpreted!

    (Full disclosure – I loved goose liver sauteed in a pan or in a pate but I stopped eating it when I thought the force feeding hurt them, and then the confinement in the dark seemed cruel also. I did not know then what I heard on Bourdain’s video, though one source is not enough to form a considered opinion.)

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Mary — first, welcome! I’ve missed your thoughtful comments and am glad we can continue the discussion here.

      To the extent that the ducks or geese used to produce foie gras are treated like other factory farmed animals — shut away from light and air in tight cages etc. — then that brings attention to the larger issue. But that’s my point. People are just focusing on gavage, not the question of how food animals are treated. And that’s a pity.

      I’ll post the link to the Bourdain video here — it’s on Facebook, not this blog: http://youtu.be/ABeWlY0KFv8

  7. Very well-written and well-thought out.

    Hal Herzog is a fellow blogger in the Animal Behavior section at PsychologyToday.com, where I write about dogs (as you know).

    I seem to remember reading somewhere that eating meat was one of the primary turning points in human evolution. I think it’s what enabled us to develop larger brain capacity than other hominids.

    Of course, I don’t think we would have been as successful at hunting large game animals without the help of our canine companions.

    LCK

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thanks, Lee.

      I’m surprised that I haven’t gotten more flak about this post (although maybe I’m speaking too soon). Even the arguments I got on Facebook were all well reasoned and polite — none of them accusatory. Good point about the dogs being helpers with hunting.

      I’ll have to check out Hal Herzog’s blog.

      I’m still trying to figure out what to do with the piece you sent on Konrad Lorenz and Jewish dogs. I’d like to write about it, but it pushes all kinds of buttons. We’ll see….

      • John says:

        Chicago takes a step back into dark ages !!!!!!!The progressive Chicago foie gras ban, sroesopnd by Alderman Joe Moore and originally passed in 2006 by a vote of 48-1, has been repealed today due to shameless manipulation by restaurant industry lobbyists to bring the diseased, rotting organs of abused ducks and geese back to Chicago’s restaurants.In the course of our work to keep this ban intact, we’ve talked to thousands of people on the streets of Chicago, the overwhelming majority of whom were horrified when they learned about the cruelty behind foie gras. Many of these people joined us in vocal support for Chicago’s progressive ban of the barbaric product. Unfortunately, in large part thanks to a handful of powerful people, battling wealthy industries can be a long, hard battle, regardless of where the public stands on the issue.This decision is a big step backwards for the city, and it goes against the tide of civilized communities who are making the compassionate decision to ban foie gras.It’s pretty clear from the desperate angling we’ve seen from the foie gras industry as they’ve fought against this ban that they know their days are numbered, but it’s a hell of a shame to see that, even in their death throes, they can still find a way to poison a beautiful thing. We will keep fighting to pass more foie gras bans and to educate the public about this delicacy of despair. You can count on that.

  8. Kristine says:

    I keep meaning to read both of these books as I think they would help me sort out my very mixed feelings surrounding my carnivorous activities. I am not morally against meat-eating, obviously, but I do feel that this practice doesn’t fit very well with my animal welfare beliefs. If I knew all of the meat I consumed was purchased from farms where the animals are raised humanely that would be one thing. But I don’t. That’s the thing I ignore every time I take a bite of steak.

    I have had foie gras and was stunned by the intensity of flavour, but I don’t know if I would again. Right now I really have more questions than answers. My love of new things and new food constantly battles with what I know to be ethically sound. Most of the time I try to ignore the latter but I don’t know how long I should keep that up.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I think those books are good for putting things into perspective. Herzog’s is pretty convincing that it’s impossible to be pure. Where do you draw the line? At leather? At creatures that smile (that was actually the criterion that someone I knew used for determining what she would eat)? I would like to eat only meat that came from humanely treated animals. But do I check at restaurants? Noooooo….

      Thanks for coming back and commenting (again), Kristine! It was so frustrating that this site went down yesterday and I’m sure it was annoying to write a thoughtful comment and have it disappear.

  9. Jenni says:

    The timing of this has been as opposite as it could be, lol. You started a blog about genealogy and meat at right about the same time I returned to veganism and got frustrated with a large family project on genealogy.

    I find the categorization of the ban as trivial odd. I don’t think it’s the least bit trivial for the geese who will not be mistreated and why would anyone else’s label matter! As far as pick your battles it’s as though we aren’t capable of multitasking! Like since I have this load of roof work going on now there is no need to feed the kids, I have to pick my battles. Which is silly, because as we know most adults are capable of handling short term detail and long range goals all at once.

    I also find some of the comments about anthropomorphising to be disturbing. As though because some of us see animals and humans as equals we are needlessly elevating animals, it’s actually quite the opposite. I think others needlessly elevate humans. We are animals no more or less important than those geese or chickens or cows. I have no right to take a goose’s life to eat, but it becomes truly sick, and not a matter of survival when one adds the extra dimension of the torture that occurs in farming systems. It’s no longer the equivalent of running an antelope down on the savanna as a matter of survival it’s a concerted, cruel effort at mass murder for profit. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAzrSl0ztsQ You know I’m not a PETA fan but the fact is that profit demands mistreatment. These geese are not running over to be fed.

    I also do not comprehend how other animal advocates stay with meat. I couldn’t. I tried, in my case for purposes of gains in the weight room. I think everyone has to come to it in their own time but I do think the idea must be dealt with. How can you advocate for one animal and yet eat another? I had to be honest, recognize my hypocrisy and choose a side. I honestly do not believe you can have it both ways, people are lying to themselves for their own (mental) comfort. I know that sounds judgmental but I mean it less as a judgement of them and more of a statement of my fact. From what I’ve seen over the last year trying to eat meat humanely there is no such thing. There just isn’t. If you wouldn’t do it to a human you have no business doing it to an animal and this false elevation of people over animals borders on the religious in its zealotry. I don’t understand it but I know people are really freaking serious about it. I would ask each and every animal advocate who eats meat would you do it yourself? If we cut out the hired hitman that is the farmer or big ag business could you force feed and kill that goose yourself? Could you slit that calve’s throat for the veal, could you do it yourself? My guess is Paul McCartney’s right if these things were done behind glass where we all could see it almost everyone would be vegetarians. But in the end we all only have our personal morality to answer to.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Jenni, thanks for this. It’s been way too calm and polite on this site; I was hoping for an argument.

      I think focusing on something only rich people can afford makes the real problem — factory farming — too easy to dismiss. As I said, it’s like PETA’s focusing on killing flies. It trivializes the larger problems of animal cruelty. That doesn’t mean I think being cruel to geese is trivial; I just think it’s a bad place to start calling attention to the problem. Another reason: the question of whether it is cruel can be argued, which is not the case when chicks have their beaks cut off.

      I think you’ll find inconsistencies in your choices. Have you given up leather entirely? Yes? Are you giving up your friendships with people who eat meat? How can you bear to be around cruel people? I could go on down the line. Read Herzog’s book. It provides an interesting context for a lot of these questions.

  10. Jenni says:

    I understand your point about the limitations of it, only the rich can afford it but I just don’t think anyone is consumed with this one thing to the point of neglecting something else. In fact I think by it’s very nature of being something that only the rich (and therefore the minority of people) can afford it was an easy win for the animal rights side. Kind of like when you have a list and you start with the easiest quickest task first so you can check it off. No, I don’t think it was effort wasted in the long run.

    I’m afraid I can’t agree that the cruelty can be argued. I have never witnessed a humane version and if you get right down to it there is nothing humane about killing.

    Well of course there are going to be inconsistencies! What is it Emerson said, “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds?” (I know, we all leave out that qualifying “foolish” at the beginning of the quote.) But I am as consistent as I can be for my economic status and conscience. Leather? Well, yes, by definition a vegan avoids animal products as much as possible but I wasn’t a big consumer of leather to start with so that’s no great problem. You know when you go to buy things leather tends to cost more, and as I’m fairly low income I often choose cloth or canvas. Friends, I actually try to be pretty careful and have friends very much like me or I find it hard to identify with them and develop the kind of trust you need for an emotional connection. I’m not even friends with any anti-choice people or Republicans so yeah most of my inner circle is either vegan or vegetarian or aiming to be. Because I can’t bear to be closely tied to people I find cruel. I mean, you know who would want to be emotionally tied to people who they find mean or cruel?

    I’ll probably get around to Herzog, in depth but from what I’ve read so far I find him to be an apologist and if I could handle that sort of hypocrisy I’d still be eating meat. I found “Why we love dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows” to be better. But for example with Herzog’s book he tackles that ‘why do we treat cockfighting as more cruel than the slaughter of chicken for food?’ and my response to that is who is this “we” stuff? I don’t. I find them equally repugnant. The law doesn’t, but then I’m not in charge of the law and to me the entire thing boils down to money. Masses of people don’t cockfight so it’s easier to crack down on that then to end the mistreatment of chicken in big agribusiness. I don’t believe for one second the FDA or Dept of Ag is in charge, it’s all about the businesses. If cockfighting made the kind of money KFC and Tyson does it would be legal too. I mean, to me he basically spends the book whining about it being too hard to be consistent. He also seems to spend quite a chunk of time attacking strawmen in the form of fake, stupid questions. He has one on pets and bonding that just made me laugh out loud and his “Judith” example he refers to as an ex-vegetarian was never actually a vegetarian- which makes me wonder if the man comprehends the terms. His dichotomies are false, we don’t have to choose between fighting and eating chickens, we could eliminate both. Personally, I think Herzog comes from a long line of scientists and psychologists that so fear being considered “emotional” that they never really get in depth about the need for compassion to animals. He’s still stuck in a Decartes mode of thinking and I think that’s sad because I think we on this side have proved that animals are not just biological machines, that they are emotional creatures the same as humans and I think he could have done more with the book if he’d have wanted to. But I don’t think he did want to, I think he was looking to justify himself to start with.

    I think what really deserves a study is the cultural whatever you want to call it that teaches humans that we are above and beyond and outside of the rest of nature. I find it eternally interesting the extent people will go to not only avoid vegetarianism but even put it down (It’s tasty murder, and vegetarian is old indian word for sucks at hunting, and other jokes) yet human is not on the menu. Why? If meat isn’t so bad why don’t people eat people? If meat-eating is so sacred, so important? I find that a hilariously sacred cow. And I think that separation between us and the rest of the animal kingdom is the root of all evils from the way animals are treated to religion. It’s conditioning that begins very early in life and is almost universal. I think the conditioning and denial that enables this entire thing is worthy of a real look and I don’t see the simple mind of Herzog supplying that.

  11. Clare says:

    Jenni, you ARE in charge of the law. The law is made by elected officials, and it is up to each of us to work to elect the officials who will make the laws we believe to be just.

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