Once Chicago celebrity chef Charlie Trotter announced that he would stop serving foie gras in his restaurant because it was produced by inhumane methods, the fight over the French delicacy assumed a profile out of proportion to the number of Americans who have ever tasted the food.
A group of protesters forms weekly outside New York City's famed Union Square Cafe to demonstrate their support for a New York state bill that would follow California's lead and ban foie gras production by 2012. Last month, Chicago's city council banned the sale of foie gras in city restaurants and supermarkets.
While these legislative moves reflect the animal rights movement's growing push to end an allegedly cruel practice, objections to foie gras have a long history. In the earliest example, eleventh-century French rabbis warned that Jews who engaged in foie gras production risked unfortunate consequences in the next world.
Today's protesters take a more this-worldly approach. A booklet distributed by anti-foie gras activists outside the Union Square Cafe claims that foie gras is the "disease tissue of a tortured, sick animal," as well as arguing that the animals "literally explode" from the food crammed down their throats.
Even in France, there is increasing pressure to reexamine the procedure. In 2003, a coalition of French animal rights groups published a Proclamation for the Abolition of the Gavage, which claimed that foie gras production was illegal under the European Union's animal protection laws.
At the center of the foie gras debate is a scientific (and also a moral) question. Does the manner of producing foie gras, in which large amounts of corn are placed into the animal's throat through a metal tube twice a day for two weeks, in order to produce enlarged livers with exceptionally high fat content, produce unacceptably large amounts of pain and suffering for the animal?
The debate is an emotional one. Some opponents believe any amount of pain for animals is unacceptable; others believe human consumption of animals is always wrong.
In our view, it is the science behind foie gras production that provides the best way of disentangling the factual, emotional, and moral aspects of the debate. The scientific literature on foie gras production provides, in conjunction with considerable observational evidence by veterinarians, a reasonable basis for reaching a conclusion about the question of high levels of pain and suffering.
For the opponents of foie gras, the process is unacceptable because both the act of feeding and the consequence of feeding cause the birds large amounts of pain. For these opponents, foie gras is an evil luxury produced through immense animal suffering to satisfy the depraved appetites of a morally sick elite.
The scientific evidence about the feeding process seems, however, to be at odds with the claim of unacceptable levels of pain. For one thing, foie gras exists because it is based on a natural fact about ducks, that is, they routinely eat very large quantities of food before migration.
For another, a number of research studies have examined the physiological effects of force-feeding to determine whether the insertion of the feeding tube and the actual feeding process cause a large amount of pain. A 1998 report by the European Union's Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare found "no evidence that intensive force feeding is stressful to the male hybrid duck."
Similar results have been reported in the United States. A study, for example, on the effects of force-feeding on the esophagus of geese found no change in the esophageal tissue consistent with pain and distress.
During a 2005 debate about foie gras in the House of Delegates of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), Dr. Walter McCarthy noted that birds used in foie gras production had esophagi lined with a cornified epithelium that was sufficiently tough and elastic to accept the significant amounts of food given to the birds. Other AVMA delegates noted that there is no physiological reason why tube feeding itself should be stressful. After he visited farms producing foie gras, Dr. Robert Gordon said that, "My position changed dramatically. I did not see animals I would consider distressed and I didn't see pain and suffering."
This still leaves the question of whether the consequence of the feeding regime results in unacceptable levels of pain and suffering. Once more, the scientific evidence speaks against the animal rights activists. In its report, the EU committee noted that the liver pathology described by foie gras opponents is not supported by either epidemiological evidence or by common sense.
Exploding livers, after all, make the product commercially useless. Moreover, as the EU report notes, the animals are killed before liver pathology can occur. Although mortality rates are higher than in comparable ducks, the overall death rate is less than that for farm-raised chickens and turkeys.
None of this will change the minds of those who believe that foie gras is an immoral luxury available only through unacceptable animal suffering. However, for those who wish to think about the issue through a scientific lens, it should go some way toward rethinking an emotional, and often scientifically uninformed, debate.