Is Foie Gras Torture?

Just before they are killed, the birds are hung upside-down (the most common poultry-slaughtering method) and hitched to a moving belt. A breast rub-installed at the suggestion of the animal-welfare consultants-stabilizes the upside-down birds and keeps them calm. Then they're knocked unconscious by a dip in electrified water, and, finally, a man in a yellow rubber suit uses a three-inch knife to make a deep cut in their necks. It all happens very quickly. A stainless-steel tub collects the crimson blood. It's not pleasant, but not as difficult to watch as you might think. And if I can't deal with it, I shouldn't be eating meat.

Soon afterward, I remembered to ask to see the esophagi removed from the slaughtered birds so I could check if they'd been damaged. I was taken past the workers slicing off the garnet breasts and legs and weighing cream-colored livers, and back into the slaughtering room. One worker was slicing off the feet, heads, and necks of the just-plucked ducks and placing those bits into a large garbage bin.

Rick Bishop, Hudson Valley's marketing director, plunged his bare hand into the bin and brought up a floppy, yellowish tube. It was stretchy, smooth, glossy, and thick. He turned part of it inside out, and I looked for abrasions, punctures, and bruises-anything that a layperson could identify as a sign that this esophagus had lived a tortured life. Nothing. I looked at several more esophagi plucked randomly from the bin, and all of them were pale pinkish-yellow and intact-no wounds, no blood, and no bruises or scrapes.

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

After the inspection, I sat down with Yanay, the owner, in his office. It didn't take much to set him off-animal activists are driving him nuts.

"You say I'm torturing ducks? Well, let's go and see. I invite the whole world to come and see," he said, sounding upset.

So where are the terrible images coming from? Some are from industrial farms in France, where individual cages are common. But Yanay blames bad farm management, not foie gras production itself. "Rats eating ducks?" he said. "You have a rat problem!"

One form of good management, Yanay added, is having each worker responsible for a particular group of ducks. They can track mortality and injuries for each worker-and workers who don't measure up are fired.

Yanay said that his farm is under a microscope, and his legal costs this month were $50,000. The Humane Society has hit the farm with several unsuccessful lawsuits. The latest one-which the New York Supreme Court dismissed, but is now in appeal-accuses the farm (and the New York State Department of Agriculture) of selling an adulterated food product, because, the plaintiffs say, the livers of force-fed ducks are diseased.

The notion that foie gras is diseased liver is often cited by opponents of the food. Cheever's e-mail to me described how, in the later stages of force-feeding, "air sac and lung volumes are compromised, and they begin to show metabolic illness from liver function impairment."

But Dr. Jaime Ruiz, director of Cornell's duck-research laboratory (and who was at pains to note that he did not support or oppose foie gras production) told me, "The farmers that I know here in New York and France handle the birds carefully, not feeding them above the physiological limits of the birds." He also said that he did not think that force-feeding, done correctly, would cause pain and that he does not consider an enlarged liver to be diseased.

I also called Dr. Sandhu, the retired avian scientist who consults with Hudson Valley Foie Gras on animal welfare. "I have been working with ducks all my life, for 30 years," he said. "[Foie gras] is not a disease. It has been shown by experiments that in birds with fatty livers, if you stop force-feeding, the liver comes back to a normal status." I asked him if the liver in foie gras birds was able to function. "Yes," he said. "It still functions normally and removes toxins. The bird is still standing; it is not sitting down. The weight of the liver is not causing the birds to collapse-they are walking and interacting with other birds."

Animal rights' groups often cite a 1998 report on foie gras from the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare. The 93-page report, though eventually concluding that "force-feeding, as currently practiced, is detrimental to the welfare of birds," is not exactly the slam dunk for animal rights' groups that I had been led to believe.

The report does not propose ending foie gras production, but instead puts forth recommendations for improving the way it's done. In fact, a part of the last section reads, "Since foie gras needs to be produced in order to satisfy the consumers' demand, it is important to produce it in conditions that are acceptable from the welfare viewpoint." The committee's suggestions include making sure that the liver size isn't causing distress to the animal, properly training all persons in charge of the birds, and banning the use of small, individual cages.

Meanwhile, the debate is not a theoretical problem for Knife + Fork, a small restaurant on the Lower East Side. Chef and owner Damien Brassel serves foie gras from the Hudson Valley farm, and he's convinced that the product is humane. "They go out of their way to show everyone exactly how it's done," he says, and suggests that the protesters go see it for themselves. Instead, the protesters have been outside his restaurant on the weekends, chanting things like, "Damien Brassel: How many geese have you tortured today?" The other night, Brassel went out to offer them some foie gras, which did not amuse them. "I take it personally," he says. "They're standing out there in leather jackets and Ugg boots." But the protesters' efforts are actually causing Brassel to sell more foie gras-customers have been requesting it, and he's added it to his tasting menu.

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