Reader Rich wrote in to alert me to an article about foie gras in the current Men's Vogue (with Tiger Woods on the cover) written by none other than Jeffrey Steingarten. So I rushed out this morning and purchased a copy. His article, "Stuffed Animals" begins on p. 194 and examines not only how foie gras is produced, but the contentious issue of whether the birds suffer during force-feeding.
"And so, at last, the question comes down to this: How much distress does the most careful sort of tube feeding cause to the duck? I know of only two medical or scientific attempts to answer this question. Neither of them has been cited by animal-rights advocates, who instead encourage us to anthropomorphize, to imagine how we would feel getting tube-fed and fattened. But this may be the wrong question. How would we like to be a duck under any circumstances? How would we feel having to paddle all day on cold New England rivers and among the sodden marshes? I wouldn't be able to take it. Think of all the bugs and crawling things. Isn't there a better way of gauging a duck's distress?
"Maybe there is. I telephoned Daniel Guémené, Ph.D., a research director at INRA, the prestigious French Institute for Agricultural Research. Guémené is an extremely prolific author of papers published in French and English journals, places such as World's Poultry Science and British Poultry Science. One of Guémené's keen interests is in discovering and refining ways of knowing whether poultry, ducks in this case, are in pain. He began his work on force-feeding in 1995, and as far as he can tell, his group at INRA is still alone in scientifically assessing the effect of tube feeding.
"His first experiments examined the concentration of corticosterone — a hormone closely associated with stress — in ducks' bloodstreams before and after feeding. He expected a sharp rise — but found none at all. Over the following years, Guémené's group also looked at other indications of distress — avoidance of the feeder, withdrawal, pain signals in the medulla — and found possibly some pain in the final days of feeding, probably caused by inflammation of the crop; minor signs of avoidance, but not aversion, among some ducks at feeding time; and an increase in panting. Ducks showed the most stress when they were physically handled in any way or moved to new cages. Mortality on foie gras farms appears to be lower than in standard poultry operations. Guémené's group confirmed that although a grossly fattened liver is not natural, it is not a sign of disease; after feeding is stopped and the liver shrinks, there is no necrosis — no liver cells have been killed."
In the end Steingarten determines, "though it seems unnecessary to stop eating foie gras altogether, the data is not unambiguous enough to encourage unbridled gorging." I have always been a big fan of Mr. Steingarten's writing (in fact it's the reason I subscribe to Vogue) and his search for the truth in whatever topic he's addressing. I place a fair amount of weight on what he reveals in "Stuffed Animals."
For another perspective, reader George emailed suggesting I Google "Holly Cheever". I did and found that she's a veterinarian who's written letters in support of PETA's activities. She also testified at the hearings in Chicago in support of the ordinance to ban foie gras and sent a letter supporting her position that you can read on the Farm Sanctuary site here.
So what does this prove? Only that the issue is still a difficult one, and perhaps it's best for each person to decide individually if she or he is comfortable with the process by which foie gras is produced. After the reading I've done, I won't go so far as to say the weight on my conscious is entirely lifted, but I will continue to eat foie gras.