It is an understatement to say that “gavage,” the force-feeding of ducks and geese by inserting a metal tube in their throats and pouring in grain, is cruel. The practice chillingly recalls an ancient method of torture called scaphism, which involves putting a prisoner into an enclosed container and forcing him to consume milk and honey.
As Deena Shanker recently wrote in Grist, force-feeding birds for foie gras also leads to the birds having a a number of health problems, as you might expect from having a fatty liver eight times the normal size. Ducks and geese who are force-fed to produce foie gras have been found to have impaired breathing, diarrhea and various forms of a liver disease known as hepatic lipidosis.
At a time when consumers have become increasingly wary of eating meat from unhealthy cows, poultry and other animals, why eat the liver of an animal that has been deliberately made ill? Force-feeding can be said to differ little from feeding cattle excessive amounts of antibiotics to make them grow larger in many ways.
The adverse effects of force-feeding on ducks were the basis of the lawsuit brought by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) against Hudson Valley Foie Gras (HVFG), which had previously advertised its foie gras as “humane” and “cruelty-free.” ALDF won its false advertising lawsuit against HVFG in August.
Recently, HVFG invited veterinarians from the Hudson Valley to tour the facility. Shanker was on this visit, in part because her father happens to be the president of the Hudson Valley Veterinary Medical Society. Any “unbiased” visitor is welcome, HVFG’s Operations Manager says to Shanker, except for, not surprisingly, “PETA affiliates.”
On the visit, Shanker saw the facilities where some 4,000 ducks are housed until they are 11 to 13 weeks old, at which point the force-feeding process beings. The younger birds live in clean and bright barns and are able to exercise as their food and water are placed at opposite ends of the buildings. The birds appeared healthy without any open sores and, Shumaker says, she saw no dead birds among them.
But the birds’ final days are still none too pleasant. In their final three weeks, they are kept in wire-bottomed cages with ten other birds (rather than in individual cages) as Shanker describes:
Trained feeders start by feeling the bird’s throat to make sure it has digested the last meal. If it hasn’t, he/she marks the bird’s head and moves on to the next. Two skipped meals mean the bird is ready for slaughter. If it is ready for the next meal, the feeder inserts the metal tube into the duck’s throat, pouring a measured amount of food down the funnel, before pulling it out and releasing the bird. The ducks get to know their feeder, which may explain why I only saw one seemingly resisting being caught and fed.
As a result of having grain poured down their throats, the birds are indeed large. Shanker notes that “most are breathing heavily but they also don’t display any visible sign that they’re in pain.”
Opinions about the extent of pain caused to birds from force-feeding vary. Veterinarians who testified on behalf of ALDF did not dispute statements made by Lawrence W. Bartholf, a veterinarian who testified in support of HVFG. According to Bartholf, because ducks are not able to store food at the bottom of their throats for later, their livers have evolved to store extra fat and they can handle force-feeding.
Supporters of ALDF argue that HVFG and other foie gras purveyors are taking advantage of ducks’ natural anatomy by feeding them excessively. Citing Fern Van Sant, a veterinarian and avian specialist who founded the For The Birds animal hospital and testified for the ALDF, Shanker notes that birds are stoic creatures and are able to put up with a fair amount of pain. Just because we humans do not think they are suffering does not mean that they are not.
What is clear is that the foie gras that ends up on someone’s plate is far, far removed from the facilities that the birds it came from are reared in. As Shanker writes, “The first thing visitors will notice when pulling up to the Ferndale, New York farm is the smell, and it is not one that evokes images of fine dining: It’s the very intense scent of poop.”
More and more people who eat meat are going out of their way to find products from animals who were not reared on antibiotics. The search is clearly on to produce “cruelty-free” foie gras, but any producer runs into ethical issues. A Spanish Pateria de Sousa says it ethically produces foie gras by allowing the birds to roam free to “recreate the natural instincts”; the birds are said to be “sacrificed” via “a method of hypnosis that they believe is more humane.” The more you learn about foie gras, the more it is apparent that it is something produced by methods that are simply inhumane and would be considered torture if applied to other animals (i.e., humans).
Photo from Thinkstock
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