Hudson Valley Foie Gras: The Inhumane ChoicePosted by John Melia, ALDF's Litigation Fellow on September 4th, 2012
The foie gras industry has a long history of lying about its product, but Hudson Valley Foie Gras, the nation's largest producer, recently took this mendacity to a whole new level. This summer, the company began prominently advertising itself as "The Humane Choice" on its website, Facebook page, and other promotional materials. I have a lot of words that I'd use to describe HVFG, but humane is certainly not one of them. Due to the torturous force-feeding process universally employed in the industry, foie gras, whether from HVFG or any other producer, is never The Humane Choice.
Foie gras is by definition the bloated, diseased liver of a duck or goose.1 In order to transform birds' normal livers into foie gras, HVFG forces massive amounts of grain into its animals over the last three to four weeks of their lives. Each duck is force-fed several times per day through a tube shoved down their esophagus. Force-feeding causes fat to rapidly accumulate in the ducks' livers, inducing a disease called hepatic lipidosis. In a few short weeks, the ducks' livers balloon to about ten times their normal size, and normal liver function begins to shut down. Without a working liver, the ducks are susceptible to rapid accumulation of harmful toxins in their bloodstreams. The ducks' other organs also become strained and crowded by the oversized liver, and the animals experience significant difficulty walking and breathing. Were the ducks not slaughtered after only a few weeks of force-feeding, the process itself would kill them. Force-feeding cannot be rendered humane through providing animals with better living conditions. The practice necessarily induces a debilitating and painful disease in affected ducks, meaning that force-feeding is necessarily cruel and inhumane.
The cruelty of force-feeding has inspired over a dozen countries, including Argentina, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, Norway, and Poland, to ban the practice. In 2003 the Supreme Court of Israel, formerly one of the world's largest producers of foie gras, declared force-feeding to be a violation of the nation's animal cruelty laws. In July of this year, California became the first US state to ban the practice.
Opposition to force-feeding is widespread in the international scientific community. Leading avian veterinarians agree that force-feeding subjects ducks and geese to a number of painful diseases and other ailments.
Dr. Yvan Beck, DVM, one of the foremost specialists in the world on foie gras, describes the consequences of force-feeding, stating that
The direct consequence of a chronic accumulation of lipids in the hepatic cell (steatosis) is the progressive appearance of secondary necrotic phenomena which, at the end of their evolution, will cause a generalized fibrosis of this organ. All the liver diseases causing a fibrosis interfere with the hepatic vascularization and are at the origin of vascular anastomoses. These shunts bypass the hepatocyte, an intermediary between the splanchnic circulation and the portal system. They also cause the manifestations of hepatic encephalopathy described.
Speaking more generally, Dr. Beck concluded that "foie gras production is directly or indirectly the source of several problems affecting animal welfare and health."
Dr. Greg Harrison, DVM, DABVP, DECAMS, is a leading author and recognized expert in avian medicine. Having analyzed various necropsies and other clinical evidence collected specifically regarding foie gras production in New York state, and relying on treatises and recently published studies, he states that the evidence indicates
various forms of what is generally known as hepatic lipidosis, a disease indicated by yellow discoloration and hepatomegaly (enlargement) of the liver due to fatty degeneration and subsequent impairment of the parenchymal cells, which can eventually lead to liver failure and death of birds diagnosed with it. Put simply, the cellular changes associated with hepatic lipidosis alter the ability of the liver to function normally, resulting in impaired animal health and if left untreated, death.
Dr. Robert E. Schmidt, DVM, PhD, DACVP, a board-certified veterinary pathologist, avian medicine expert, and author of several authoritative texts on avian pathology, concludes that
[h]epatic lipidosis can be accompanied by various clinical signs including anorexia, depression, diarrhea, biliverdinuria, obesity, poor feathering, dyspnea, and abdominal enlargement, and via impairment of the liver's function, may lead to hepatic encephalopathy, with clinical signs of seizures, ataxia, and muscle tremors.
In addition to relying on various published studies, and an examination of the various necropsies and other clinical evidence collected specifically regarding foie gras production in New York state, Dr. Schmidt personally examined samples of livers from birds used in foie gras production at the facilities of two New York foie gras producers. He concluded that
all of the liver samples showed abnormal hepatocytes (liver cells), representing a pathological condition, which would impair cellular functions, and which in turn can lead to clinical illness. This condition, known as hepatic lipidosis or hepatic steatosis, is well documented in published literature, and recognized as a metabolic disease.
The opinions of Drs. Beck, Schmidt, and Harrison are not anomalies, but reflect the general scientific consensus that force-feeding induces disease in animals subjected to the practice. In 1998, the European Union Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare, an official and permanent committee of the European Commission, adopted a 93-page official report on the production of foie gras, which states that "because normal liver function is seriously impaired in birds with the hypertrophied liver which occurs at the end of force feeding this level of steatosis should be considered pathological."
Recent analysis has only reaffirmed the cruelty of force-fed foie gras. Humane Society of the United States released a report in March of 2012 presenting an overview of the scientific literature about of the foie gras industry. After reviewing the available data, the report concluded that "force-feeding ducks and geese for foie gras production causes significant welfare issues, including disease, injury, and increased mortality." The report illustrates that the foie gras industry is, as it always has been, rife with inhumane and unhealthy production methods.
Video evidence further reveals the inhumane conditions at HVFG. Last year, Animal Protection and Rescue League conducted investigations of HVFG and Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras. At both facilities, investigators discovered that birds were kept in poor conditions, and appeared to be suffering from numerous health problems. The animals were held in small, filthy pens, unable to go outside. Most of the ducks appeared to be having trouble breathing and walking. Many had mucus crusted around their eyes and nostrils, and some were suffering from untreated wounds and skin conditions. The investigators found several dead ducks as well, either tossed into garbage bins or laying in the pens alongside their living cagemates. Most people would be more likely to call these conditions appalling rather than humane.
Given the widely recognized cruelty of force-feeding, it is difficult to imagine how HVFG can call itself the humane choice. One could give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they just don't know what the word means, but it's more likely they're just lying to sell more product. In any event, as long as the company continues force-feeding ducks to intentionally induce painful liver disease, HVFG has no claim to the word humane. In light of the many available food options that don't involve torturing animals, I propose HVFG adopt a new, more accurate slogan.
1. While foie gras may be made from goose liver, American foie gras is almost exclusively made from duck liver.