Is Foie Gras Torture?

Henley said that he'd been making some changes on the farm with the help of animal-welfare consultants, including Dr. Ericka Voogd (a colleague of Grandin's) and Dr. Tirath Sandhu, an avian scientist who is retired from the Cornell Veterinary School. One of the alterations could be found in the nurseries, our next stop.

This nursery held four-day-old chicks and smelled woodsy from the fluffy sawdust bedding covering the floor. The flock of yellow babies cheeped and toddled around the warm room. Until recently, the chicks lived on just one level of sawdust, but moisture from their drinking water would drip down into the bedding. At the prompting of the welfare consultants, the farm installed a wire-mesh ramp on one side of the room, leading up to a level wire-mesh floor, where the water nipples are now located. Moisture drips down through the mesh, and the bedding stays dry. Plus, said Henley, "it adds a level of complexity to their environment."

Henley then took us through a door into a similar room, which held nine-week-olds that looked nearly full-grown. The mass of feathers moved as one, scampering away from us as we entered the room. "You have to move slowly, or they'll stampede," Henley told us. We walked slowly out into the center of the room, and it was like parting the sea-but a sea of ducks.

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

Once the birds hit 12 weeks, they're moved from the growing areas&-;where they waddle around freely and have windows for natural light-to the group pens, where the 21-day force-feeding begins and the room is lit artificially. (It does seem like a step down in living arrangements.)

We headed back to the buildings where the feeding was taking place. A worker climbed into the pen with a stool and a wooden divider. (Each worker has a group of 320 to 350 ducks that he or she feeds every day during the 21-day regimen; workers whose ducks have low mortality rates and high-quality livers get bonuses.) A tube with a funnel at the top was strung from a wire above, and the worker slid it along into the pen she was about to work in. The birds clustered on one side of the pen, but didn't show nearly as much aversion to humans as the nine-week-olds we had just seen did-the older ducks seemed less alarmed by humans, which is hard to reconcile with if they were being tortured.

The woman sat on the stool, put the wooden divider in the middle of the pen, and reached for the first bird. She positioned the bird's body under her leg, eased the tube down the bird's throat, and poured a cupful of feed into the funnel above. A rotating auger spins in the funnel to make sure all of it goes down the pipe, but the food is delivered by gravity. The birds did not relish being grabbed, but the actual process with the tube didn't seem to bother them much. They sat with the tube down their throat for a very short period of time-about 10 to 15 seconds-without struggling or showing sign of distress. The whole process-pick up, position, feed, and release-took about 30 seconds. I watched the birds closely as they walked away from the feeding. Each waddled calmly away, looking unfazed: no breathing problems, no vomiting, and no trouble walking. Their feathers were fairly clean, and I didn't see any lesions on their feet or bodies.

But these ducks were only on their 12th day of force-feeding, so I asked to see the ducks on their 21st day again-this time, to pay more attention to the details of the feeding. We went back up to the area where we had started from. Some of the cages that were full when we saw them earlier were now half-empty, because some ducks actually go to slaughter earlier than the 22nd day. The feeder feels the base of each duck's esophagus (sometimes called a "pseudo-crop"), where feed is held that has yet to be digested. Birds that haven't digested the last feeding are marked with blue chalk and not fed. If they still haven't digested by the next feeding, they're not fed yet again and are marked with pink chalk and taken with the next batch to be slaughtered.

The birds on their 21st day of feeding appeared very much like the ones at 12 days, but were fatter and had dirtier feathers. The birds are bathed on the second and 10th days of feeding, but Henley said the farm was working with its animal-welfare consultants to find a way to keep the birds' feathers cleaner and thus prevent sores. These birds' reactions to the force-feeding were indistinguishable from those of the 12th-day birds. I looked for the signs that I'd been told would show me that the birds were desperately ill, but these birds, on their 21st day, were not having trouble walking or breathing, they weren't having seizures, and they weren't comatose.

I was at the farm for five hours, all told. I saw thousands of ducks, but not a drop of duck vomit. I didn't see an animal that was having a hard time breathing or walking, or a duck with a bloodied beak or blown-open esophagus. I did see one dead duck. And now I was going to see many more, as I went to the area where they are slaughtered.

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