July 16, 2007
Amidst my busy week in nature, I did manage one day to touch down on planet-city-earth, and catch some buzz. I found that Bill was the new Gazette wine critic (Way to go,Bill!), that Toque got the rave review they deserve in the Gazette, and that Daniel Vézina plans on opening a restaurant in Montreal soon…
And then there was the foie gras scandal. I received numerous emails on the matter, and although I weighed in when the debate was on in Chicago , I can’t help but pick up again and put in my two cents..
The articles in question:
- Group claims ducks abused at Quebec company http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20070710/foie_gras_070710?s_name=&no_ads=
- Activists go undercover to curb public's appetite for foie gras in Quebec , Globe and Mail, by INGRID PERITZ, July 11, 2007
I've never used this foie producer in particular and so I can’t say much about the operation and whether they are negligent or not. However, I think we would all agree that the alleged aggression depicted is senseless and unacceptable. No one would condone decapitating, kicking and asphyxiating ducks in that manner. Even the most unsympathetic of meat eaters agree that it only makes sense to treat the animals we raise for meat in a humane way, for the quality of the meat if anything. I find it hard to believe, and highly doubt that it represents the industry as a whole. Especially after viewing the debate last year in the States, I suspect that again, much of the same oversimplification and sensationalism is at play in the portrayal of the duck liver business here. Certainly tagging the industry as a whole in Quebec as only a brutal horror is unfair.
The fact that the company in question is the biggest in Quebec probably has something to do with it, given that BIG usually means a lack of care and quality control, with a focus on production and the bottom line, very different from a SMALL artisanal production. Sure enough, since the outcry, some smaller artisanal producers have spoken up and invited the media to visit. Print that story please.
Excessive violence aside, the making of foie gras is controversial in itself. Many people are grossed out by the forcefeeding of the ducks (gavage) and find it cruel, making the foie gras business an easy target for activists. Animal rights groups have succeeded in banning the production and sale of foie gras in several states.
But, there is much about ducks that the general urban public doesn’t understand. Ducks are of a unique, magnificent design physically and aerodynamically; they are perfectly programmed to suit their way of life, and accordingly have a very special kind of liver. Ducks naturally gorge themselves before migration in the wild. In other words, an enlarged liver for a duck is not a sick liver as it would be in our case. There is no doubt that the human tradition of foie gras exploits this ability of theirs, but it really isn't as unethical as it appears on the surface; its something we’ve been doing for thousands of years, and hardly worse than many of the other practices used in providing us with meat and other treats.
That doesn’t make it right. As I have said before, I am not a huge foie gras fan and I might one day easily accept that this is not something we collectively find reasonable to support in modern times. I already rarely serve it, only doing so at the special request of a customer. I find it completely understandable that someone might be turned off by foie and choose not to eat it, like I respect the decisions of vegetarians around me to shun meat or dairy.
Like with cigarette smoking, eating foie gras or maybe eating meat altogether, could easily go the way of the do-do as we evolve as a society. And fine. But as with smoking, I don’t personally think we need legislation. If people don’t want to buy it, the providers of the ‘evil’ stuff will eventually stop making it. Then again, if the majority of the population wants anti-foie laws because it will force change faster, than I accept that. In the meantime, I just think we have bigger fish to fry.
Mainly, I just wish people would wake up to the big picture. We need to get our priorities straight. Everyone should look in their own fridge, stop buying feedlot beef from Cargyll (Costco) and mass produced chicken breasts from big chains before taking to the streets and worrying about the comparatively small amount of seal or foie gras being eaten. Factory farming is a much larger scale problem on so many levels (environment, economic impact, public health and safety, etc.) than foie gras. Big industry keeps the true story and the ugly reality of what most North Americans eat on a daily basis carefully hidden away. Investigative journalists work full time trying to get a peek, and still few get the real scoop. But if they could see, most people would be equally, if not more horrified by what goes on behind the closed doors of major agribusiness which fills their shopping carts.
Because it is not in our face when we buy a pristinely packaged chicken breast, and we aren’t killing the creature ourselves, are we relieved of the responsibility inherent? It is much easier to turn a blind eye to the ways of the almighty government subsidized agri-giant far away, and target the small foie gras producer. Most often, this is a poor guy honestly and proudly carrying out a family old tradition serving familiar customers who are knowingly buying a specialty product they value. Not to mention that foie gras is a special occasion type of dish eaten once and a while by a small handful of the population, and therefore a miniature piece of the food pie.
It is fast food and factory meat that is making us fat and unhealthy, that is devastating our environment with its reliance on corn and petrol , that is moving the economy, making a few rich while most get poorer, that is suffocating the family farm and destroying communities; it is not foie gras.
Like the manipulative campaign against the Innus' seal hunt using old, fake footage, this misinformed overly dramatic type of activism innerves me. It is ignorant and hypocritical. People far removed from their food in cities usually have a far greater ecological footprint than the duck farmer or hunter and fisherman, who have a close relationship with nature and hence an enormous respect for it. We need to give them more credit and judge second.
I also think we all have to take a step back and chill out in general. First of all, nothing is black and white, there are always many sides to a story. We shouldn’t be too quick to turn our back on history and tradition, which sometimes lands us in a mess – think farming methods and the environment. Also, we must acknowledge the fact that we all have our differences and particular things close to our heart that we want to fight for that perhaps don’t matter to others. Duck fat, so apparently horrible to some, is a beautiful thing to me, and actually a much more natural fat that we seem well disposed to digest after centuries of an omnivorous diet often heavy on fatty meat than say the trans fat in a muffin you might pick up at Starbucks. At Starbucks, where they also serve ‘un’ fair trade coffee to all kinds daily, among them self-righteous activists. It so happens that I care more about country-sides of people being exploited for a major commodity like coffee than a few ducks. Or how about the latest fashions in clothes so dear to some heavy on petrol based synthetics or cotton that mortgages the pesticide soaked lives of poor workers in the third world? Again, I care more about people than ducks, and so cotton can gross me out more than foie gras.
Still, I regularly make an effort to refrain from harshly judging lifestyles I don’t necessarily understand, be it the wearing of cotton, or of a burka, or being a Mormon, or eating processed food, or having kids, or smoking pot, or wearing patchouli, or being a swinger, or listening to rap, or buying tons of shoes, or commuting hours on a daily basis, or redecorating your house every year, or driving a loud, stinky motorcycle. Some of these lifestyle choices puzzle me, even may offend me at times, but I suck it up. Because I know I’m not perfect either, and that there is always more to any person or image than the thing that bothers me.
We have to be careful when messing with someone else’s livelihood. As we grapple with what we want as a society, we need to respect one another while promoting the freedom of expression. Let the animal huggers march, let the foie gras industry stand up to them and let the other people decide. We sometimes need a dose of activism or extremism to get the ball rolling. I’m all for it, as long as it leads to a good debate, and that a bunch of other issues come to surface. In this case, I hope people start paying more attention to their food and where it comes from. I just don’t want the foie gras producers to get squashed for nothing (not to mention Quebeckers losing their favoured X-mas treat) in a sea of mediatic nonsense with Brigitte Bardots and Madonnas and bloody pictures distracting people from what could be a productive discussion. I hope that the public attention span outlasts the image of a fat duck.
Another visit to a different foie gras farm in France:
An artisanal foie gras producer in Quebec