I was recently shocked to discover that several New Haven area restaurants such as Zinc, Roomba, the Union League Cafe, and the Central Steak House, feature foie gras on their menus either as standard entrees or on their lists of specials. Foie gras is a French term meaning “fatty liver.” Its production involves force-feeding ducks and geese to induce them to develop hepatic lipidosis or more simply, “fatty liver disease.”
Even in an era where factory farms are legitimized, the production of foie gras stands out as extraordinarily cruel and abusive. Ducks and geese are force-fed tremendous amounts of grain via a 12- to 16-inch plastic or metal pipe, which is shoved down their throats and attached to a pressurized pump. The force-feeding is generally performed twice daily for up to two weeks for ducks and three to four times daily for up to 28 days for geese. Rubber bands are generally tied around the throats of the birds to ensure that they do not throw up after these feeding sessions. The procedure causes the liver to swell to about six to 10 times the normal size for a bird.
The consequences of such procedures are disastrous for the birds even before they are slaughtered. Increased liver size forces the abdomen to expand, which makes moving difficult and painful. An enlarged abdomen increases the risk of damage to the stretched tissue of the lower part of the esophagus. Moreover, confinement in small cages can lead to lesions of the sternum and bone fractures, as well as foot injuries from the cage floors.
In recent years, mounting pressure from animal rights groups has resulted in the banning of foie gras production in many countries such as England, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, Belgium and Germany. Last month, Israel, the world’s third biggest supplier of foie gras (after Hungary and France), banned the force-feeding of geese and ducks beginning in 2005, on the grounds that it involved unacceptable levels of cruelty and abuse.
In the United States there are currently two main farms that produce foie gras, one in New York and the other in California. In 1991, PETA investigated foie gras production in New York. Despite the producer’s prior claims that it made foie gras without force-feeding the ducks, PETA’s investigators observed the opposite. Each worker at the farm was expected to force-feed 500 birds three times a day. So many ducks died when their stomachs burst from overfeeding that workers who killed fewer than 50 birds received bonuses. Since this time, it has also been demonstrated that there does not exist a procedure for producing foie gras that doesn’t involve force-feeding (part of the reason the delicacy was recently banned in Israel).
In 1992, an investigation by a veterinarian for the Humane Society of the United States led to police raids and cruelty charges against the same New York producer. Necropsies of the dead birds revealed that the force-fed birds had chronic heart disorders; ruptured liver cell membranes; cirrhosis; traumatic esophagitis; and lesions in their gizzards and intestines. Dead birds were found with food filling their esophagi and spilling out of their nostrils.
Only male ducks are used for the production of foie gras. A local animal rights activist from New Haven recently visited a foie gras farm. She reported that ducklings are separated from their mothers when they were one day old. The females are discarded in trash bags placed in scalding water. The males are castrated. To ensure that they do not injure each other in the over-crowded cages in which they are kept, the ends of their upper bills are cut off without the use of painkillers and their toenails are cauterized (she even brought back ducklings as proof of these practices).
In my experience, animal rights and animal welfare groups in the United States have considerably less influence than their counterparts in some other parts of the world. Persuading New Haven restaurants to remove this particular item from their menus is turning out to be a difficult task. As a small step in the direction of improving the welfare of many suffering creatures, I would like to urge fellow students and other members of the Yale community to not order foie gras next time they dine out in New Haven. You don’t have to be a vegetarian, an animal lover, or a believer in karma to agree that a dish created with so much abuse and cruelty is just too much to stomach.
Shareen Joshi is a graduate student in the Economics Department.