Angry Geese and the Ongoing Debate on the Ethics of Foie Gras

Categories: Wake Up Call

The end of foie gras in California is rapidly approaching. On July 1, the full provisions of SB 1520 will go into effect and both foie gras production and sale will be prohibited. SB 1520 was signed into law by Arnold Schwarzenegger way back in 2004. The law gave a seven-year grace period in which Californian foie gras producers could develop new means of producing the controversial ingredient. After July 1, violators of the law will face a $1,000 fine for each offense.

We've talked about the ethics of foie gras with Valley chefs before and the response to that article was heated. Opinions on this topic, here and elsewhere, seem to be split into three camps:
1. People who believe the production of foie gras is morally repugnant and, thus, should be banned.
2. People who believe the production of foie gras is morally repugnant but that people should be allowed to participate in activities that they personally disagree with.
3. People who believe foie gras is delicious and want to keep eating it.

There also been a couple of popular straw men who have been dragged out as well:
1. People who want to ban foie gras are mindless hippies who hate America and freedom.
2. People who want to keep eating foie gras are evil, hate animals, and what them to suffer.

Neither of these straw men is an accurate representation of how the three larger groups really feel. So perhaps a compromise of sorts is in order. Check out this TED talk from chef Dan Barber:

NPR's This American Life did a followup story in which it explored how successful Barber was at building his own humane foie gras. It's really an excellent piece and worth a listen, but the short of it is that, after three years of intense effort, Barber has yet to replicate the success of Spanish foie gras producer Eduardo Sousa. It's possible that Sousa's methods will never yield commercially viable products, but maybe that's a lesson in and of itself.

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Dominic Armato
Dominic Armato

"3. People who believe foie gras is delicious and want to keep eating it."

I would note that many who fall into this category are not glossing over the issue of humane treatment of farm animals (as this, intentionally or unintentionally, kind of implies), but rather believe the evidence suggests that foie production as practiced on a responsible farm is not inhumane.


This whole issue is one of those "lets pick something that's in the minority instead of making a real difference".  Where is the public outcry of how cows are treated?  Or chickens?  Oh, well, humane only goes so far, after all, I need my Big Mac and chicken nuggets.

Ando Muneno
Ando Muneno

That's why I pointed out that straw men in this debate. I don't know of many people who want to continue to consume foie gras but also say, "I hope the geese suffer horrifically when they fatten their livers. Knowing their last days were agony enhances the dining experience." I'm pretty sure a compromise could be reached between people who want to continue to consume/serve foie gras and those (who are often the same people) who want to see the business of making fatty goose livers more humane. 

That's why I linked the TED talk, Barber has a line in there near the end where he questions if he'll ever eat regular foie gras again because it seems like such a disservice to the kind of foie gras Eduardo is putting out.

Ando Muneno
Ando Muneno

That certainly is how the law in California sounds. If I recall correctly, there's only one major producer of foie gras in California  so banning the stuff sounded... oddly specific to him. 

Dominic Armato
Dominic Armato

It's an interesting story, and a romantic notion.  Though I wonder if it's a pipe dream.  Some have suggested it's an outright fiction, though I see no reason to doubt it.

Anyway, I agree that the "Hooray for animal torture!" caricature is a strawman.  I just meant to suggest that there's a distinction between those who take a head-in-the-sand approach, or who say, 'Yeah, it's bad, but it's not THAT bad and this is how we eat," and those who simply don't believe it's inhumane.  I had that discussion with a reporter back in Chicago once, and since the pro-foie crowd had largely glossed over the humane concerns and focused on the freedom of choice and limits of governance angle, he was surprised that I directly addressed the issue of whether or not it was humane.  At the time, he said I was the only person he'd spoken to who directly confronted the suggestion that it was inhumane or torturous.  Though I think that focus on the pro-foie crowd's part was tactical.  "Freedom to choose," "Government shouldn't be involved in this," are easy messages to get across.  Making the argument that this doesn't hurt the birds involves a lot more science and nuance and a better understanding of the process, and it contradicts what many people's first gut reaction is, so it's a much harder argument to make.  But I think it's the right one.  If I thought these birds were actually being tortured, I like to think I wouldn't simply gloss over that fact because they're tasty.  But I don't.

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