Today I welcome back to the blog, Mr Martijn Stolze, who after his previous article on The moral problems of organ donation returns here to give his take on the morals and ethics of a rather controversial piece of gastronomy.
“My idea of heaven is eating pates de foie gras to the sound of trumpets.”
– Sydney Smith
As any decently heeled Frenchman will tell you there are no greater pleasures in life than the eating of a nice piece of Foie Gras, the fattened liver of either a duck (Foie gras de Canard) or a goose (Foie Gras d’oie). A regional specialty from the Aquitaine areas of France (namely Gascony and Dordogne) it has become the topic of vociferous debate thanks to its status as a dish notable for its cruelty. In this article I will hopefully not only show both sides of the debate but argue in the favour of the continued production of foie gras, and Mr. van der Luit-Drummond will explain its legal status in Europe as well as the US.
Now foie gras is considered at the very height of culinary sophistication and has been so for centuries. Prized for the fatty, delicate texture, the way it just melts in the mouth like butter and the subtle tastes which pair ever so well with the nicest of sweet or semi-sweet wines (indeed, the first time I ever ate foie gras was in a Parisian bistro on the Ile de la Cite, accompanied by a glass of Sauternes. I was fourteen). Even in food history it holds a notable place. One of the most famous chefs and courtiers in French history, Jean-Pierre Clause, created a dish many food historians considered the first piece of haute cuisine, a pastry dish filled with foie gras, minced veal and the thinly sliced back fat of a nondescript animal. It slowly simmered in the oven, allowing the fatty nature of the foie gras to permeate the entire dish. The first time it was served people were astounded. ‘That Gibraltar of Foie (sic) gras which kept everyone silent when it appeared on the table, fulfilling the hearts… so all the faces showed the heat of desire, the ecstasy of enjoyment and the full rest of bliss’, quite something for a dish of food.
Despite its roots in France foie gras has most likely existed since the time of the Egyptians, who force-fed their ducks and geese to make them more fatty and delicious. The Romans knew of it as ficatum and enjoyed it copiously. Nero was said to have eaten it every day, and only shared it with his closed friends, to reward them for their loyalty. During the Middle Ages it fell into unpopularity because of a preference for heartier and meatier flavours, as well as the emergence of stronger and more tannic wines. Later the popularity shot up again with the emergence of a social middle class. When it came to America on a big scale in the sixties it became all the rage, displacing oysters as the most popular upper class food for the hip and happening. Yet nowadays foie gras is considered by many the ultimate sign of a hedonist society, of human dominance exerted over the poor animals we exploit, and of self-interested carelessness for the wellbeing of living things. As the New York Times says: ‘Foie gras, depending on your point of view, is either a particularly brutal form of animal cruelty or a fête gastronomique that foodies would rather die for than surrender.’
So what is wrong with foie gras? Well, first of all, it is a food enjoyed by a certain type of person, the sort of person whose financial situation is comfortable enough to spend a lot of money on food, and that is the kind of person who is always looked at with a slight envy. To quote Dutch writer Ronald Giphart ‘the sort of person who opposes foie gras is the sort of person who would also oppose hamburgers if they were elitist food’. The main issue however is the way that (some, let that be clear, not all) foie gras is produced. Foie gras is special because of the way the animals are fed. To get the texture and the fattiness there needs to be a lot of overfeeding. Most producers do this with funnels that they push into the animal’s mouth and just force feed them a pap. This is not only against the animal’s instinct and ‘will’, but it is also bad for its health. Other producers confuse the animals by changing the light in the barn or coop to make the animals think it is day more often and forcing them to eat. I should make it clear and say that I totally understand that the funneling of food is something that is very close to the moral boundaries for me, but I would still eat it if that was the only way possible, for I don’t see it as any more cruel than many of the things we do to other animals. Luckily many French producers now use the second method which is of no real inconvenience to the animal. In fact I’ve been told that animal neuroscientists consider eating one of the few things that animals ‘enjoy’, and to me that signals that the overfeeding by disruption of schedules is not particularly cruel.
What has happened to foie gras over the world? Most animal rights associations vilify it. States like California have banned it. The question I ask myself, especially as a big fan, is, why foie gras? Anybody who has ever read an exposé on the food industry, watched a show on it or seen films such as Food Inc. will know what I mean. Cattle standing in manure up to their knees. Chickens genetically modified, so that they can barely walk, to produce more white meat, and cooped up in disgusting places with no room to move. Cattle injected Dr. Mengele style with all kinds of hormones and various other dangerous substances which have been shown to cause pain and infection. The way pigs were slaughtered for decades was painful and inhumane. The production of veal is aimed at making sure the animals move as little as possible so as to keep the meat tender. All these thing to me are as cruel as, if not more cruel than, the overfeeding of poultry to fatten their livers. Yet nothing seems to be done about that, nor is the public outcry nearly as big. Why is foie gras more immoral, more cruel?
Perhaps foie gras is the triumph of the food industry. In the US neither FDA nor USDA are in any way strict enough on the biggest producers who all use the abovementioned practices and so, to show they actually do something, and to divert attention away from the big producers (who make a lot of money and spend a lot on lobbying) they take action against foie gras. This makes the animal rights activists such as PETA happy and appeases all the bleeding hearts at home who can go back to eating their chicken nuggets and minced beef from animals far more tortuously treated than any duck or goose. As only a small, and supposedly dislikeable, group of people eat foie gras public opinion was always going to favour the prohibition of the stuff.
Even amongst chefs it is a divisive issue. Most chefs of good restaurants source their foods from reputable places, usually the sort of place where the practice of ‘gavage’ (the force-feeding) does not happen or only happens as part of the fattening process. Some chefs do oppose foie gras, although I have a suspicion those that do merely do so to score points with the public, considering foie gras, no matter how delicious, is a difficult ingredient to be creative with, especially in this new world of molecular gastronomy and new cuisine. Most people I speak to love foie gras, and will not be perturbed by the issues and let it stop them from eating it. Some, like my mother, do. However, pretty much everyone I have ever spoken to on the matter considers it a personal choice, not something that should be legislated. For that I want to quote American chef Charlie Trotter, who has taken foie gras of the menu by personal choice, but said about the animal rights campaigners ‘these people are idiots. Understand my position: I have nothing to do with a group like that. I think they’re pathetic.’ Now I don’t wish to tar all animal rights activists with the same brush, but if people wish to decide for me what I can and cannot eat (within the realm of reason of course) then perhaps they deserve it.
I will continue to eat foie gras and respect those people who decide not to. But with certain people actively campaigning to outlaw it, whilst ignoring so much else that is done to animals worldwide, I have to think of an old anecdote concerning Charles Dickens. Whenever he had a rather copious dinner, he would hire beggars to stand outside his house and complain about their hunger, so that he and his family and guests enjoyed their food even more. How incredibly Victorian. Now, with foie gras, wherever I eat it (and it won’t be in California, sadly) I will think of that story and imagine angry campaigners outside the windows. The food will taste ever so good, because it represents individual freedom, and so it will taste of liberty.
Let me know in the comments what you think about foie gras, and feel free to call me a hedonistic male chauvinist elitist pig.
By Martijn Stolze Copyright © 2013
The Legality of Foie Gras
Now I will not go into the history, morals of ethics of foie gras as I believe that Martijn has done a fantastic job of this in his post above, albeit from his own subjective viewpoint. I will, however, discuss the legality of the production, distribution and sale of a product that causes such incredible friction between those that love it and those that oppose it.
As Martijn alluded to above, the production of foie gras is currently banned in the state of California but this is not the only time in recent years that a section of the US has banned it. Previously the city of Chicago banned the production and selling of foie gras from 2006 until 2008, when it reversed its decision based on the criticisms that the ban was maneuvered into a larger package that the city council had voted on. As for California, those that flout the new law, known as California SB 1520 will receive a $1,000 fine. However, as with any law a somewhat ingenious loophole can occasionally be found. Some restaurant owners have declared they are safe from prosecution under the law if restaurant goers bring in their own foie gras for them to legally prepare and serve. This is because the law does not prohibit the consumption of foie gras, the giving it as a gift, or its importation from outside of the state of California. So Martijn may indeed be able to have his favourite dish the next time he visits “The Golden State”.
The EU has already banned production of foie gras in countries within the union that do not already have an existing trade in the ‘delicacy’. However, that does not affect the five countries that do have a trade in it, these are Belgium, Bulgaria, Spain, Hungary and of course France. Gavage is actually now protected by French law as part of their cultural and gastronomical “heritage” under the French rural code L654-27-1. In fact foie gras cannot be sold as being truly French unless it is the result of the force-feeding practice. Foie gras production has been unilaterally banned in several countries, including most of the Austrian provinces, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland and Israel. General animal protection laws in countries such as Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, and the Netherlands mean that production is essentially banned there too.
Foie gras is also not produced in the UK as above it would be illegal to produce under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The Act deems that due to the welfare problems involved and the unnatural nature of the gavage feeding technique production is not allowed. Many activists believe that foie gras production violates every single one of the five freedoms outlined in the Animal Welfare Act. These five freedoms as currently expressed are:
- Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour;
- Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area;
- Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment;
- Freedom to express normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind;
- Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.
However, whilst the production of foie gras is illegal within the UK it is not illegal to import or sell it. According to French industry figures over 192 tonnes of foie gras was imported into the UK in 2010. The UK currently consumes more French foie gras than Germany, twice as much as Italy, and four times more than the Netherlands. But those that sell foie gras in the UK might still fall foul (no pun intended) to trading standards and open themselves up to prosecution.
In December 2011 Westminster council trading standards advised that the sale of foie gras at Fortnum & Mason could contravene the company’s corporate social responsibility policy which promised to sell only meat produced to the “highest welfare standards”. Trading standards officers agreed with the demands from PETA that the store should amend the wording of its CSR policy to make it clear that its decision to sell foie gras did not comply with its framework on selling meat produced to the highest welfare standards or it could otherwise be in breach of consumer protection laws and leave itself open to legal action.
As Martijn highlighted above, the production, sale and consumption of foie gras is controversial, as is the consumption of whale or dolphin meat in Scandinavian countries or in Japan. It could even be argued that the “regular” slaughter of other animals such as lamb and veal or suckling pig are also controversial. In the end every state must legislate for what it believes is right for their public and this obviously changes depending upon the individual state involved. After all, sometimes it is for a minority to decide what is best for the majority. For those of us in the UK who are in the perhaps enviable position of choice it is up for us as individuals to make our peace with whether or not we agree with foie gras – at least until such time as that choice is taken out of our own hands.
By John van der Luit-Drummond Copyright © 2013
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