Foie gras gets the better of the veterinary profession
It’s just goose liver, right? So what’s the big deal? How can an overstuffed bird’s digestive organ bring the vet profession down a notch?
Well … The debate was raised and the hemming and hawing was fierce, indeed. But in the end, no policy statement was issued.
It became clear that the practice of forcing geese to consume grains until their normal liver becomes a fatty, swollen, diseased — but delectable — liver wasn't an issue that veterinarians in leadership positions were willing to handle.
"Too hot for us!," they cried. "Give us another year to think about it!" (When there’s a whole new executive board, I hope.)
Just so you know, I’m a die-hard foodie. While I’m no vegetarian (see my post on this), I am passionate about animal welfare in agricultural settings. And I confess, I used to consume foie gras with impunity … and significant relish.
As the food critic for The Wharton Journal (a school paper with money to burn), I once did a story on finding Philly’s best foie gras. And it was perhaps the best paying writing assignment I’ll ever get: six, full, high-end, Philly-priced meals for two, courtesy of an academic rag. For two hours of writing. That’s equal to over $500 an hour in 1997 dollars!
But after graduation, I left the corrupting ooze of my business school days far behind, seeking love over money. And with Philly in my rear-view mirror, the world of endless foie gras consumption gradually faded as reality took its place. As I became inescapably aware of the forced feeding that goes into the making of foi gras, this ex-vegetarian B-school grad came back to her animal-centric roots.
Nonetheless, I’m here to confess: I still eat foie gras.
Bad, bad vet! How could you?
Well, there’s more to foie gras than meets the eye. Technically, any goose or duck liver can be called foie gras, regardless of how the bird is treated (the French might disagree a tad but I'm not French). Only chicken and less fatty birds suffer the ignominy of a less Frenchified term: plain liver.
That means that non-force fed, normally fatty-livered geese and duck liver can still be called foie gras, even though the liver itself is not overtaxed to produce a full-blown diseased state we call hepatic lipidosis. Sure, non force-fed goose and duck liver doesn’t have the velvety mouthfeel and unctuous fattiness of what we tend to think of as haute cuisine’s finest hour, but it tastes great all the same. (Here's one BBC article extolling the virtues of a softer kind of production.)
When pureed to a smooth paté with butter, cream, cognac, shallots and truffles, non-sick bird liver is still among the yummiest of things you can imagine (I have a great recipe if you'd like one). No need to make a bird sick for that.
You may be one of those people who think liver is gross anyway — much more so when it’s diseased. You have the easy road on this one. But if you’re on the other side, wondering what all the fuss is about, thinking it’s a bird who’s been treated successfully this way for centuries, just consider:
Getting your gullet stuffed daily beyond capacity can’t be comfortable, though the esophagus of birds are notoriously resistant to stretching. And acquiring a disease that we know makes humans and cats feel like curling up in a ball and dying seems even less so. Is a small slice of heaven worth it?
Most of the AVMA committee’s members declined to opine. It’s just a bird, and it’s used to getting fed this way. It’s no more cruel than taking a cat’s rectal temperture, one vet even claimed.
Now that banning foie gras is getting to be trendy (Chicago bans its consumption altogether!), you’d think the AVMA might at least have a thing or two to say about banning a practice, if not an entire foodstuff.
We vets still have the power to help convince society that some foods can be humane and wholesome without condemning an industry outright. But we missed our chance with a no confidence vote on this policy statement last year (it has not yet come up again).
Ultimately, our lack of ethical resolve does a disservice to the animals, the animal industry and the credibility of vets, to whom society looks to for guidance on animal welfare imperatives. If a whole city can condemn a food (and it’s only the first), can the collapse of an entire industry (albeit small) be far behind? Will the continuation of a condemnable practice at the expense of an animal and its industry be the next step?
And so I say: Let us eat foie gras. But let it meet the high standards for humane treatment my profession should have the courage to establish ... but does not.
Dr. Patty Khuly