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Foie Gras: The Duck Liver Debate

Is foie gras foul or a freaking delicious model for meat production? We are a culture of duck lovers. There's Daffy, Donald, and...

Is foie gras foul or a freaking delicious model for meat production?
We are a culture of duck lovers. There's Daffy, Donald, and Daphne. Rubber duckies, ugly ducklings, and Make Way for Ducklings. A duck, we know, may be somebody's mother. Then, there are all the jokes that are made funnier with ducks, like this one:

A woman goes into a cafe with a duck. She puts the duck on a stool and sits next to it. The waiter comes over and says: "Hey! That's the ugliest pig that I have ever seen." The woman says: "It's a duck, not a pig." And the waiter says: "I was talking to the duck" (from Laughlines).

Because we anthropomorphize ducks, foie gras, or fattened duck liver, is right up there with shark fin soup and bluefin tuna as the most politically incorrect of foods. It's no laughing matter. Foie gras is made by gorging ducks and geese on food, often by putting a tube down the animal's throat. Even though ducks don't have gag reflexes, the mere thought of a tube down any animal's throat is unpleasant.

As Mark Caro, the Chicago Tribune reporter and author of Foie Gras Wars (where I first read that duck joke), explains, "It's easier to get indignant about an animal that you don't eat every day than the ones you do. Foie gras is the perfect product to rebel against. It's liver, which most people don't like. It's French and Americans seem to have a problem with the French. It's seen as a food for rich food snobs. It's expensive. The way you make it sounds disgusting."

So far, the disgust has amounted to a 2012 ban against the production and sale of foie gras in California. San Francisco and Takoma Park, Maryland recently passed municipal bills that commend any restaurant for taking foie gras off the menu. And, as Thomas Rogers reported on Salon, The Humane Society of the United States has stepped up lawsuits about alleged environmental violations against one of only three remaining producers, Hudson Valley Foie Gras. The legal bills from these suits alone may threaten to put the farm out of business.

While the tide may be turning against foie gras, it keeps showing up on menus. Top Chef finalists prepared foie gras torchon; a recent effort to eradicate Canada geese in suburban New Jersey included a recipe for goose stuffed with foie gras; and as the local-food star Dan Barber pointed out, rather succinctly, in his 2008 Taste3 Conference talk, chefs continue to use it because "it's so freaking delicious." Barber went a step further and described how one Spanish farmer, Eduardo Sousa, raises geese in a natural environment. Sousa allows the animals to gorge themselves naturally, as wild birds would have done before migrating. Barber suggested that small-scale farmers, like Sousa, who don't force-feed their geese and ducks, were making foie gras humanely, undermining the argument that the luxury product is inexorably linked with animal cruelty.

In this light, foie gras may offer a lesson. Here's a delicacy that resulted from generations of working with nature. It requires hard work. Yields are small. Customers pay for an expensive process. Foie gras is not something you want to eat everyday. Considering the problems created by our insatiable demand for animal protein, this could be a good model for any meat. If you're going to eat meat, it might be best treated as an expensive and resource-intensive food. Unless, of course, you believe a nation of well-intentioned do-gooders has the right to legislate small-scale European farmers. Or that it's still all right to kill ducks for meat, but not for their livers.

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