Is Foie Gras Torture?

It's very hard to watch the video about foie gras from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and not conclude that you should lay off fatty liver.

You're shown a disheveled duck squeezed into a cage so small that the bird can't open its wings. Disturbingly, it rocks back and forth. You then see an enormous barn full of birds, all of them immobilized in tiny cages. There are graphic shots of birds' festering open sores with rats nibbling at them, some that are dying slowly, and some with holes punched through their necks. We learn that foie gras production has been banned in the United Kingdom, Israel, and Switzerland.

The Humane Society and the ASPCA have also joined PETA to oppose foie gras. They object to the force-feeding process, called "gavage," which entails putting a metal tube down a duck's throat to deliver a large amount of corn-based food that causes the liver to enlarge. The process, animal rights groups say, causes trauma to the duck's esophagus and beak. Also, they say, the enlargement of the liver&-;from six to 10 times the normal size&-;causes the ducks to become deathly ill, struggle to walk and breathe, and vomit up undigested food. At the website of the humane group Farm Sanctuary, a photograph of a healthy, fluffy white duck rescued from a foie gras farm is contrasted with a shot of two ducks in tiny cages, both covered with their own yellow vomit.

Henley with nine-week-old ducks.
Amol Mhatre
Henley with nine-week-old ducks.
The farm at daybreak.
Amol Mhatre
The farm at daybreak.


How Foie Gras Gets Made
Photos of the whole process at Hudson Valley
by Amol Mhatre

"I am disturbed by the rough handling that creates myriad lesions&-;fractured limbs and infections of their feet," says Dr. Holly Cheever, vice president of the New York Humane Society, a veterinarian, and an occasional consultant to PETA. "Pneumonia and esophageal scarring, fungal and bacterial infections, and, in rare cases, the rupture of the liver from excess pressure on a badly swollen organ-not to mention the semi-comatose and seizuring states I have seen in the end stages as the liver fails and the brain can no longer function . . . yet, the feeder will grab a seizuring or semi-comatose bird and force the tube down to continue the process of liver engorgement. Surely you do not need a veterinary affidavit to label this as cruel?" Cheever says that the esophagi are often "blown open" and that the fattened liver becomes profoundly diseased, which causes the birds to die a slow death, beset with seizures and unable to walk.

Groups that oppose the production of foie gras have pushed for city and state bans on the product, sometimes with success, as in California, and sometimes with temporary success, as in Chicago. Meanwhile, various groups continue to hold demonstrations outside restaurants that serve the product, and the Humane Society has brought lawsuits against a local farm.

After watching the gruesome images, it's not hard to understand the legislative concern. No one wants tortured ducks on their watch. After all, we adore ducks-Daffy, Donald, even the Aflac duck-because we find them funny and appealing, much more so than chickens or turkeys.

However, in some cases, legislators have reversed course. In 2007, New York State Assemblyman Michael Benjamin withdrew his name from a proposed bill banning foie gras production in the state after he visited the biggest foie gras farm in the country, Hudson Valley Foie Gras.

What did he see there? Fortunately, Hudson Valley is only about two hours from the city. I figured the only way to know for sure whether foie gras equals torture was to go see it produced for myself. I called a contact at the gourmet food company D'Artagnan, which works closely with Hudson Valley, and asked if I could look around. I'd want to see the force-feeding. And the slaughter. And bring a photographer.

"No problem," came the reply.

In the United States, foie gras production is tiny compared to other animal husbandry. There are four American foie gras farms, and all raise ducks rather than geese, selling not only livers but also breast and leg meat, sausages made with scraps, and down from the feathers. Hudson Valley offers duck testicles and duck tongues, too.

And although Hudson Valley is the biggest foie gras producer in the country, processing 4,000 to 6,000 ducks a week, it raises birds by the traditional model, instead of the industrial one. That means that everything&-;from the egg hatching to the 21-day force-feeding period and the slaughter-happens on the same farm, tended to by the same workers. So I'd be able to see it all.

When I told Cheever that I was visiting Hudson Valley, she said that I'd be witnessing an elaborate cover-up. "With 150 people living on-site, they can cherry-pick out the disastrously sick ducks," she said. She also didn't believe that the farm force-feeds for only 21 days before slaughtering the ducks. "By the end of the third to fourth weeks, their breathing is strained and their limbs may be lame from infection and injury or fractures, but YOU will not see those birds," she wrote to me in an e-mail.

Hudson Valley Foie Gras is not actually in the Hudson Valley, but in a sparsely populated, rather desolate town called Ferndale in the Catskills region. First stop was the home of Marcus Henley, the farm manager at Hudson Valley, who lives with his wife, Sohnnie (pronounced "Shaun-ie"), on 12 acres, with a black cat, a canary, and some koi. Both are from Arkansas. Henley studied science in college, served in the Army, and then started managing poultry farms in 1983. He came to Hudson Valley in 2001.

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