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Is Eating Foie Gras a Faux Pas?

Animal welfare groups certainly think so. What do local chefs say?


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By Diane Weintraub Pohl




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Steel yourself: another moral crusade is upon us. It’s been steaming in picket lines, simmering in legislative committees, and is about to boil over onto our dinner plates. Had any nice foie gras appetizers lately? Then you’ve automatically joined the fray.


The fattened livers of force-fed ducks (or geese) are a roiling battleground for animal-rights activists. The force-feeding process is torture, they say, and the images they describe aren’t pretty. All those cute little ducks. All those metal pipes, ruptured throats, bloated organs.


The issue has wended its impassioned way into the legislatures of many states, including our own. Bills pending in Albany would prohibit current force-feeding practices, affecting the nation’s largest producer, Hudson Valley Foie Gras. The alternative, animal-rights activists say, is doing it nature’s way, distributing food and letting the ducks self-feed to their hearts’—or livers’—content. That might make for happier ducks, but, force-feeding opponents contend, it surely wouldn’t make for great profits. “The current practices are a function of economics,” says Gene Baur, president of the activist group Farm Sanctuary. “The ducks are fed to grow and reach market as soon as possible.”


 Baur cites one Midwestern producer and one Spaniard currently exploring the self-feeding option, which, of course, if it takes hold, will render your foie gras appetizer exponentially more expensive.


 But at least it would still be available. That’s not the case in Chicago, where foie gras has been banned from restaurants since early 2006, when it was estimated by a Illinois Restaurant Association lawsuit it would cost the city about $18 million a year in lost sales and tax revenues and tips. A ban in California is slated to take effect in 2012. Los Angeles-based chef Wolfgang Puck has already excised the item from his Spago menu, “the result of a few trips to large-scale farms and discussions with the Humane Society,” he explained to Wine Spectator last year. Closer to home, Manhattan’s Rene Pujol restaurant has removed foie gras from its menu, serving it only by advance request. “It’s a matter of integrity,” says its chef Vincent Purdy. “There’s a lot of cruelty in the food chain.”


So where do our own county chefs stand? None of the 15 I interviewed have declined to serve foie gras. Several did voice moral concerns, but most defended the force-feeding practice. They as many others point out that while, yes, steel funnels are put down ducks’ throats, but scientists have documented that ducks lack a gag reflex and have an expandable, insensitive esophagus. And that while yes, the livers are enlarged to many times their normal size, but ducks routinely gorge to fatten their livers for energy storage during travel. Besides, says Antipasti’s Rick Laakkonen, “Making foie gras is an integral part of our craft.”


Any classically trained chef would concur. “Foie gras has been a part of food culture for centuries,” notes Harvest on Hudson chef Vincent Barcelona, who equates the process with wine making and truffle hunting. Plates’ Matthew Karp takes it even further, claiming that “this tradition has been going on since the beginning of time,” and he’s not far off. Back in 2500 BC, those trendsetting Egyptians made force-fed waterfowl livers the small plates of their day, and Jews, Greeks, and Romans were quick studies.



For every study that cites force-feeding as harmless, another claims that it’s not. Animal-rights coverage abounds with documentation of cramped cages, impaired liver function, and vomit-choked birds. Foie gras supporters refute this, citing veterinary studies concluding that force-fed birds do not have elevated stress levels, are treated humanely, and are not caged. At Hudson Valley Foie Gras, the birds are housed in huge open-floor barns, then transferred to pens at 12 weeks of age, when force-feeding begins. Operations manager Marcus Henley explains that the feeding process, which takes several seconds, is repeated three times daily for between three and four weeks. Hudson Valley’s entire operation, he says, from hatching to packaging, is monitored daily by a U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food safety inspector.


But activists wouldn’t care if it was monitored by the CIA. “No matter how well they are treating the ducks, they’re still causing them pain,” insists Sandra DeFeo, co-executive director of the Humane Society of New York. “Confining the ducks and force-feeding them is not natural.”


Xaviar Restaurant Group’s Peter Kelly decided to visit the Catskill area farm and see for himself. “It’s not a perfect process,” he concedes, “but the birds are treated well; they are in good health.” Otherwise, he notes, “they couldn’t be sold.” Alluding to such other animal-rights issues as crated veal calves, he views the force-feeding debate as “low-hanging fruit for animal-rights extremists.” Chef Brian MacMenamin of MacMenamin’s Grill concurs. “If people knew the facts, this wouldn’t be such an issue.”


Iron Horse Grill chef Phil McGrath admits that he’s conflicted. “I enjoy foie gras,” he says, “but I’ve been sent videotapes and photos from animal-rights activists.” He comes down on the side of practicality. “It’s a business decision for me. Customers want foie gras, which is the deciding factor.” Matthew Karp agrees. “I’m just trying to give people an enjoyable dining experience.”


Besides, asks McGrath, rhetorically: “Is it okay to pour beer down Waygu cattle’s throats? Is it okay to crowd veal calves in crates, and chickens in pens with their beaks and claws cut off so they can’t hurt each other? The oceans are over-fished, so should I not serve seafood?”


Port Chester and Greenwich chef Rafael Palomino cites clubbed Canadian seals and tainted Chinese imports as more pressing problems. Or even more important: human poverty.


 “People are hungry in this country,” he says. “Africans are starving and being massacred. With all the human issues in the world, this is nothing.” Matthew Karp is also leery of jumping on the bandwagon. “People suffering comes first,” he says. “Within a five-mile radius of my restaurant, there are immigrants crowded into apartments with no insurance.” As for the foie gras issue: “There are bigger injustices,” he says.



Contributing writer Diane Weintraub Pohl has observed most phases of the foie gras operation at Hudson Valley Foie Gras, and saw no evidence of animal abuse on the tour she was given.

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