Why Focus on Foie Gras?

Posted by Carter Dillard, ALDF's Director of Litigation on September 19, 2011

Foie gras, French for “fat liver,” is produced by using a pump to force-feed ducks and geese over a period of weeks so that they develop a liver disease known as hepatic lipidosis, or steatosis, which causes their livers to expand six to ten times their normal size. As one would expect the diseased livers stop functioning properly. In the typical course of force-feeding, the mortality rate of force-fed ducks may be ten to twenty times higher than that of non-force-fed ducks during the two weeks before slaughter. Videos of ducks used to make foie gras are available here:

More than a dozen countries have prohibited foie gras production, and California will soon prohibit its production and sale. Wolfgang Puck refuses to use foie gras, and the Pope has condemned it. Recently the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a citizen’s petition with the United States Department of Agriculture simply urging the Department to require that foie gras producers using the USDA seal of approval – which implies the food carrying the seal comes from healthy animals – include a disclaimer that foie gras livers are actually derived from diseased birds. Producers, distributors, and restaurateurs who profit from foie gras (it runs $50/lb) oppose the label because they, understandably, want to hide the truth about foie gras from purchasers.

And yet, relative to other factory farm practices, foie gras production involves relatively few animals, less than a million a year versus the roughly one hundred million pigs killed each year. So why focus on foie gras?

The rightness or wrongness of how we treat animals is not just about the number of animals, or quantum of animal suffering, involved. It is also about the particular act itself – how inhuman (lacking the basic human quality of mercy) the act is, and therefore what the act tells us about the person willing to commit it. Eating dogs in Korea seems wrong to many, but beating or hanging the dogs to cause a spike in their adrenaline, which improves the taste of the meat, seems particularly inhuman. It is not enough that the dog died to make food, which some would argue is necessary or justified for humans to live – the same argument pork producers make. Instead, the person willing to torture the dog to make the dog meat taste better is inhuman, or sadistic, because it’s no longer about needing food to live; it’s about taste or pleasure, which for that person outweighs any disvalue in the animal suffering.

Foie gras supporters are no different – for them, improved taste justifies pain and suffering. That is an inhuman quality. The number of animals aside, this puts foie gras and its supporters, like veal and its supporters, in a different category. If only one animal were killed a year in this way, the Animal Legal Defense Fund would try to eliminate the practice because of what it says about us and our relationship to animals, about our humanity.

Foie gras supporters usually defend it by claiming that it is an ancient practice or part of a normal migratory process. No one seriously defending a particular practice against a social movement that wants to eliminate it thinks tradition is a justification – any more than history and tradition justified the oppression of women, child labor, the ostracization of homosexuals, or slavery. Eliminating regressive traditions is the point of progressive movements after all. Furthermore, while ducks that do migrate will eat more than normal before migration, their livers only expand one and a half to two times their normal size. Ducks force fed for foie gras have their livers expanded by six to ten times their normal size. Ducks in this state can barely walk, let alone migrate.

Foie gras production is inhuman, making innocent creatures suffer simply to improve their taste. Whether our society permits it will be a good test of just how humane, or human, we really are.