Is Foie Gras Torture?

On their kitchen table, they'd laid out a spread of products from the farm. There was duck confit, smoked duck breast, deviled duck eggs, duck prosciutto, torchon of foie gras, and foie gras butter-a heart-stopping concoction of rendered foie gras fat and black truffles. The Henleys are 95 percent vegetarian, for health reasons, so this meal was unusual for them.

Henley shrugged when I asked him about the first time he had tried the product. "A boy from Arkansas doesn't get a lot of chance to eat foie gras," he said. I told him that I'd spoken with Cheever, and that she insisted I would not be allowed to see the ducks in the later stages of force-feeding and that the sick ducks would have been removed so I couldn't see them. He laughed. "It's not necessary to do that," he said. "Anyone can come anytime, unannounced. But she says we lie, that we're hiding a horror chamber. We have national-level vets come visit-we have journalists and chefs. How am I going to trick these people?"

Henley assured me that the next morning, when I visited the farm, I'd be able to see what was behind every door. "And there is every possibility that, at some point, we will see a dead duck," he cautioned. The farm has a mortality rate of about 5 percent (from when they're hatched to when they reach 15 weeks, which is when they're slaughtered), so some animals do die along the way-as they do at every farm.

Each duck is force-fed for 10 to 15 seconds.
Amol Mhatre
Each duck is force-fed for 10 to 15 seconds.
Izzy Yanay, owner of Hudson Valley Foie Gras
Amol Mhatre
Izzy Yanay, owner of Hudson Valley Foie Gras


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

I'm no bird expert, so that night at the hotel, I made a list of the criteria that Dr. Temple Grandin had given me in a phone interview. Grandin is a universally respected animal-welfare expert whose opinions are esteemed by groups as radically far apart as McDonald's and PETA. Grandin cautioned that she hadn't been to a foie gras farm herself, but she would say that "ducks and geese will do a certain amount of gorging-that's natural." She explained that the birds prepare for migration by storing fat in their livers and beneath their skin. "An enlarged liver is not necessarily sick, but it's a matter of how far you push it. Are you overloading the birds' biology to the point where it falls apart? Is the duck so big and distorted that it can hardly walk?" She mentioned that birds do not have a gag reflex as humans do, but that the handlers must be careful not to hurt the birds' esophagi with the feeding tube.

Check for bright eyes, clean feathers, foot conditions, and the level of the smell of ammonia in the barn, she said. The birds won't be hungry, so they wouldn't flock to the feeders, but I should watch to see if they tolerate the feeding or try to get away. And if they do show aversion, I should try to figure out if it's because they don't want to be handled or don't want to be fed.

Both Grandin and Cheever agreed that it was important that I see the ducks in the later stages of force-feeding-if any ducks were sick, it would be these. But Cheever was convinced that the farm wouldn't show me those birds.

The next morning, I drove down the narrow road surrounded on either side with fields blanketed in snow and lit by a yellow moon about to set. The farm was at the end of the road, made up of long, low buildings constructed of lumber and corrugated steel. The structures looked out of date, having been built in the 1950s, but Izzy Yanay, the Israeli-born owner of the farm, said he's unable to put money into improvements until he's free from legal bills, the result of ongoing lawsuits from the Humane Society.

We met up with Henley and started to look around. The first thing I noticed was the lack of tiny cages. Hudson Valley raises its ducks in free-feeding barns until they're 12 weeks old. After that, the birds are moved to the force-feeding barns, but instead of being put into individual cages, they're housed in relatively spacious, open-topped group pens about the size of an office cubicle. In fact, none of the four foie gras farms in the United States currently uses the individual cages that have shown up in industrial farms in Canada and France. Hudson Valley's products are certified "cage-free."

Henley then took me to watch the oldest ducks get loaded into a rolling cart bound for the slaughter room. They waddled to the front of their pens and regarded us curiously. The birds that finished their feeding regime yesterday were the ones being loaded up for the big goodbye, while the others, who were on day 21 that day, were being fed.

The room is lined with four rows of pens that run lengthwise down the barn. There were 11 ducks in each four-by-six-foot pen, which are raised about a foot off the ground; wire mesh forms the floors of the pens, so that duck waste can fall through it into the channel beneath. The place smelled funky, and faintly of ammonia, but not overwhelmingly so. So far, the sights could not have been more different from the horrifying images I'd seen on the Internet.

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