Au revoir foie gras

As California goes, so goes the nation some say. In 2004, California became the first state in the country to ban the sale and production of foie gras from force-fed ducks and geese. The law goes into effect on Sunday, July 1.

Foie gras is the fattened liver of ducks and geese who are force-fed through a pipe shoved down their throats. The force-feeding takes place twice a day for about two weeks until the animals are on the verge of organ rupture. It’s a controversial item celebrated by foodies and deplored by animal protectionists for its inherent cruelty.

Duck at Sonoma Foie Gras Photo by APRL

While California might be the first U.S. state to ban the practice, it’s not the first locality by far. Laws have been passed in more than a dozen other countries to outlaw foie gras production, including Israel, which was formerly the world’s fourth-largest foie gras producing country. It banned foie gras production on the grounds that it violated the country’s pre-existing animal cruelty statute.

California’s law came with a seven-and-a-half year phase-out period during which foie gras producers could have worked to find an alternate production method to force-feeding. At the time the state’s sole foie gras producer, Guillermo Gonzalez who runs Sonoma Foie Gras, lobbied in support of the ban, saying, “I have the moral stature to accept that if within the seven-and-a-half years established by S.B. 1520, science and government don’t arrive to the conclusion that the methods used in our foie gras production are acceptable … I will be ready to quit.”

No one has found a humane magic bullet to mass produce foie gras that doesn’t involve force-feeding the animals. Yet a handful of chefs and Gonzalez are manufacturing an eleventh hour crisis to try to get the bill overturned. In an effort to mislead consumers about the production of foie gras, they are trying to create standards which would essentially codify what they’re already doing. For example, requiring that the birds are not confined in cages (they’re not caged in California to begin with) and that the birds are hand-fed. The latter conjures images of a friendly farmer lovingly holding his hand out to let a duck gobble feed from his palm. In reality, it would simply mean that workers would use their hands to individually shove a pipe down the birds’ throats—something they already do.

In a state where we’re facing an economic crisis and many other important issues, it’s sad to see the legislative system, and the media for that matter, being tied up by a few chefs’ petty desire to be able to eat and sell a product that few can afford and that so clearly is cruel and inhumane to produce. For the ducks and geese in California and those of us who’ve been waiting for this day for seven and a half years, July 1 can’t get here soon enough. And may many states follow.

Q&A on new investigation exposing cruelty to ducks

Animal Protection and Rescue League released the results of its undercover investigation conducted at two U.S. foie gras producers, Hudson Valley Foie Gras and Sonoma Foie Gras, earlier this week. The release of its footage is timely, as a law goes into effect in California to ban the sale and production of foie gras in the state in just six months.

Foie gras is the liver of force-fed ducks and geese. The animals are force-fed until their livers become 10 times their normal size. The animals are on the verge of organ rupture and many ducks do not survive the process to make it to slaughter.

The APRL activists who went undercover installed cameras to obtain footage of force-feeding of ducks at Hudson Valley foie gras in New York. According to a news release from APRL, “Hudson Valley Foie Gras repeatedly claims their ducks do not try to escape the force feeding, but the undercover footage shows them huddling in the corner of their pens as a worker grabs them by the wings and shoves a large metal pipe down their throats.” They also carried cameras into Sonoma Foie Gras to document the conditions of the state’s sole foie gras producer.

The Just Dish posed some questions to Dana Portnoy, one of the APRL activists who went undercover. Here’s what she said.

TJD: What stands out to you most from your experience visiting a foie gras farm? 

DP: The terror and panic we saw in the ducks. Our very presence was terrifying for them.  Several ducks were in a wooden pen with a mesh bottom. As we approached the pens for a better look, the ducks were toppling over each other to get as far back into the pen and away from us as possible. And the panting, which is a sign of extreme stress in ducks. Every duck that we walked past was panting. You could see the terror in their eyes. Even though we were there to help them, they were terrified of us given the torture inflicted on them by the manhandling and force-feeding.

TJD: Describe the conditions of the birds you saw who were in later stages of their “gavage.” 

DP: There were ducks that could not get up and ducks that had difficulty standing and walking.  It looked like they were also having difficulty breathing. There were dead ducks and ducks that were on the verge of dying. They were covered in fecal waste and regurgitated corn mash.  We also saw trash cans filled with dead ducks. Thrown away like garbage. All of the ducks were heavily panting.

TJD: Why is this an issue consumers should care about? 

DP: Most people don’t want to consume a product they know is derived from a diseased, tortured animal. When people eat foie gras, they are eating the diseased liver of a tortured duck. Force-feeding causes the duck’s liver to grow to 10 times the normal size. The ducks have a 10″ metal pipe shoved down their throats several times a day while two pounds of corn mush is pumped into their stomachs. That’s about 1/3 of the duck’s body weight. If the ducks were not killed by the farm, they would die from the force feeding. Many ducks die as a result of a punctured esophagus from the feeding pipe, choking on regurgitated corn, ruptured livers and ducks have even been known to explode.

TJD: I understand four birds were rescued from the facility. How are those birds doing now?

DP: It was a long road to recovery. The ducks wouldn’t eat on their own for a couple of weeks. They were petrified of their human caregivers and the other ducks at their new home. It was only after a few weeks that they began to trust their fellow water fowl. They wouldn’t swim, which is critical to a duck’s health and well-being, for almost two months. Three of the ducks are doing much better now. They’re still incredibly wary of their human caregivers and won’t let people get close to them. They have, however, developed bonds with the other ducks. All 4 were put on a strict salad diet to lose weight and relieve the pressure on their legs, hearts and lungs. The 4th duck, we’ll call him “B” was the one who we were most concerned about. When he was rescued, we didn’t know if he would make it. He had severe osteoarthritis and couldn’t walk or stand. The vet thought he would have no quality of life and would need to be euthanized, but his human caregivers didn’t give up hope. If he could make it out of that hell hole, he could survive. He deserved a chance at a new life. He was put on pain killers, lost a few pounds and went through six weeks of hydrotherapy. I’m happy to report that his health has improved. He still has a very evident limp, but he can get around. He has a group of female ducks that sit with him during the day.

Given how these ducks were raised, and the horrors they endured, we really don’t know how long they’ll live.  Although their life expectancy may be short, they’ll at least get to live out the rest of their days enjoying the companionship of other ducks, swimming in water, eating healthy food and receiving love and care.

A reason to celebrate

Not that we really need a reason to celebrate, but 2012 will be the year of the duck. And the goose. At least in California. You see, next July after a long eight-year phase out, the sale and production of foie gras, French for fatty liver, will be illegal in the state. Violators of the law could be fined up to a thousand dollars a day. What could possibly be so wrong with a food product that it would be outlawed in an entire state?

Foie gras has been called one of the cruelest forms of animal agriculture. Ducks and geese raised to produce foie gras are force-fed via a tube shoved down their throats. This force-feeding takes place several times a day until the birds’ livers have swollen up to ten times their normal size. The resulting condition, hepatic lipidosis, is literally a diseased liver. Undercover exposés have documented birds whose organs have become so enlarged they’ve ruptured completely. Some have had their throats torn by the pipes.

Photo from Hudson Valley Foie Gras (c) Animal Protection and Rescue League

To celebrate the demise of this so-called delicacy in California, Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary is giving foie gras a hearty send-off this weekend. A volunteer is hosting Death of a Cruel Delicacy: A Farewell to Foie Gras Soirée which will feature an incredible array of vegan appetizers and desserts. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, or will happen to be there this weekend, come celebrate this joyous occasion with us. At the event, you can:

  • Help raise funds for Harvest Home Sanctuary’s animal healthcare fund;
  • Enjoy seasonal vegan appetizers, specialty beer and cider;
  • View original photography of the sanctuary’s ducks;
  • Donate vegan food to support the Emergency Food Bank of Stockton/San Joaquin and be entered to win a free Harvest Home t-shirt;
  • Receive a free holiday goodie bag;
  • Bid on silent auction items like jewelry, clothing, artwork, gift certificates, sanctuary greeting card sets, and a sanctuary vegan dinner for four;
  • See a short film of Harvest Home’s rescue work;
  • And join a game of Harvest Home Trivial Pursuit.

Space is limited. Purchase tickets in advance online here. Hope to see you there!