Shock & Foie

Posted in Letters on Sunday, February 1st, 2009 by Mark Pastore

The War Against Dietary Self-Determinism

Part of Incanto’s mission is to offer our diners an opportunity to connect with the food we serve: who raised it, where it comes from, how it is cultivated, distributed, prepared, and consumed.  One such opportunity comes with our annual Farmers’ Dinner. 2009 marked the sixth year we have hosted this celebratory event, at which we seat the dining public at communal tables with the farmers and ranchers whose products are featured throughout Incanto’s menu every day.  This is always an occasion for discussion and debate about the future of farming, cooking, and the role of food in our lives.

Many who attend this dinner each year have shared the thought that they are trying to live their lives more sustainably. Sustainability has been the buzzword in food (and many other circles) for years.  What does is really mean? For many, the word conjures up bucolic images: a cow standing in a pasture, a red barn, a farmer tending to an idyllic field of plants, leaves glimmering in the breeze. Sustainability engenders warm and fuzzy feelings.  I have had guests ask pointedly whether or not a product we serve is “sustainable” – ready to pounce on the slightest stutter in our response. To which I usually respond (only half-jokingly) “I don’t know, that depends on what you do after you eat it.” This brandishment of the concept of sustainability partly explains what has transformed it into a powerful word for marketers, to be approached with care.

The reality is that bringing a forkful of food to the mouth of a human in our world, be it meat or plant, is usually as much about destruction as it as about creation; sustainability merely speaks to whether there is a balance between the two. Animals are raised for human consumption, then unceremoniously slaughtered, butchered, and packaged into sometimes unrecognizable forms.  Vegetables are ripped from the soil or cut from the stalk at harvest, sometimes by machines that unintentionally claim the lives of innocent wild animals along the way. Remnants are tilled under to make way for new crops. The cook takes ingredients and submits them to knife, fire, and all manner of further manipulation to transform them into something that is chewed, digested, and passed into oblivion, usually with little thought of the significance.

Make no mistake: with the possible exception of the small number of practicing fruitarians – bonus points if you know what that is – some amount of destruction is inherent to the process through which most of us derive our nourishment. If we can manage our journey through the food cycle without leaving the planet worse off, we pat ourselves on the back, give ourselves a cookie, and call ourselves sustainable.

But sustainability does not change a fundamental fact: that the food system almost all of us are a part of not only tolerates violence – and yes, sometimes even cruelty and death – it anticipates and embraces it. Though one can appreciate the argument that a vegetarian diet imposes a smaller footprint on the world, the responsibility for this relationship rests not solely with carnivores, but with all of us who feed at the trough. Even the farming of grains and vegetables is undeniably responsible for the loss of animal life: farms displace natural habitats, farm equipment unavoidably intersects with wildlife, and even organic fertilizers may contain animal products (blood, bone meal).  Food morality is not as black and white as we like to believe: it’s possible to raise animals sustainably and it’s possible to raise vegetables unsustainably.  Neither side has a monopoly.

The notion of a society accepting an unpleasant trade-off between something valued within that society and death of innocents is not exclusive to food production. It is virtually a defining characteristic of collective social order, whether among humans or other animals. Each year in the United States, for example, more than forty thousand people are killed and more than two million injured in transportation-related accidents. Yet we accept the level of violence and suffering wrought by this human activity, with little or no ongoing debate. Why? First, because vehicular travel is convenient and interwoven with our way of life. But also because our country is founded upon the notion of personal liberty, which includes freedom of movement and freedom to choose how one travels. Even when that activity carries with it the certainty that thousands of people, including innocent by-standers, will die each year directly as a result, we implicitly accept this terrible cost in exchange for the opportunity to move around fast with relatively little hindrance.  I have searched for an association of human rights activists that is protesting this senseless violence and calling for a ban on all mechanized travel.  I have not yet found one.

This brings us to an issue – on the philosophical basis of pragmatism, at least  – of less significance: the debate over whether our society should permit the force-feeding of ducks and geese, for the purpose of enlarging their liver for human consumption. In short: the debate over foie gras.

Few debates within the world of food are more controversial, emotional, and fraught with moral peril.   The amount of money, time, and attention devoted to something that 99% of Americans did not eat last year is astounding. Just as veal was in the 1980s, foie gras has become the current litmus test for culinary political correctness. High-profile celebrity chef/businessmen such as Charlie Trotter and Wolfgang Puck gained national attention for publicly disavowing it.  Even those who’ve never had any direct experience with foie gras voice strong opinions. Roger Moore is on the record against it; Sean Connery has not yet commented publicly (but is presumably pro-foie gras). And, in one of many uncanny parallels with the debate over a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, these opinions are often expressed forcefully, using graphic visual aids, personal condemnation, and at times vandalism and the threat of violence as tactics. Altogether, a puzzling way of demonstrating one’s moral superiority over someone who happens to hold a divergent belief.

Ironically, were it not for the streak of deeply destructive vigilantism present within the anti-foie gras movement, Incanto and many other restaurants may not have actively chosen a side on this issue.  After all, Incanto is an Italian restaurant, not French.  And the brand of carnivorism we espouse at Incanto tends toward championing the lesser-appreciated offal cuts, rather than the few like foie gras that are already regarded as being worthy of alta cucina.  In the past, foie gras never really fit in at Incanto.  Even if it had, with Incanto’s daily-changing menu, it would hardly last for more than a few days.

Nonetheless, after San Francisco chef Laurent Manrique was targeted in 2003 by anti-foie gras protestors, this equation changed.  Unknown persons vandalized Chef Manrique’s home and shop and sent threatening letters, along with a videotape taken of him with his wife and child at their home, directly threatening their safety. The sheer depravity and hypocrisy of this attack served as the catalyst for first considering foie gras for Incanto’s menu.  It did the same for other restaurants around the country, raising the other side of the issue: whether or not as a society we will permit the views of a vocal minority to trample our personal right to choose what we will and will not eat.

Reasonable people can disagree over the ethics of one’s chosen diet and the various practices of farmers, whether those farmers produce meat, fruits, or vegetables. Fundamentally, we believe that individuals ought to be free to determine how to live their lives, including their diet. If we live in a society that tolerates the death of 40,000 people to die each year for the right to convenient travel, how can we sacrifice our right to taste, to choice, and to dietary self-determinism?

We respect the right to oppose the production and consumption of foie gras.  We relate to many of the reasons that some choose to do so. However, we no more cede control over our morality than we would presume to compel someone else to conform to our notions of how they ought to live their life. We do not grant permission to someone who has no legal, moral, or spiritual authority to impose their beliefs upon us, whether that person is demanding we adopt their point of view regarding foie gras, abortion, or what books we should read. These are all personal choices and should remain so.

In recent years, the attention focused on this issue has caused many of those who enjoy eating foie gras to regard it as a guilty pleasure.  We do not. We believe that dispassionate examination of the practices of the handful of small American foie gras producers supports the conclusion that their methods are neither cruel nor inhumane.

Much of the outrage being stirred up over foie gras production centers around the practice of gavage, the use of a funnel inserted into the duck’s esophagus to force-feed grain to the duck over the final 15-21 days of its life.  Those who oppose gavage assert that the ducks choke, vomit, and suffer greatly because of this process.  This sounds reasonable. After all, how would you like to have a tube stuffed down your throat three times a day?

However, this approach is the crux of the problem with an argument meant to play upon human empathy: it anthropomorphizes an animal whose physiology is fundamentally different than ours. Ducks and geese are waterfowl. Their digestive tracts evolved to accommodate swallowing of whole fish, the occasional amphibian, and rocks for the gizzard to assist in digestion. They lack a gag reflex and their esophagus is lined not with the delicate mucus membrane found in humans, but a thick cuticle. Their windpipe opens in the middle of their tongue and they do not breathe using an abdominal diaphragm as humans do. Air passes through air sacs located in the upper torso, prior to entering the lungs. Ducks are able to breathe, even during the brief 10-15-second process of gavage.

Dr. Jeanne Smith, an avian veterinarian who investigated Incanto’s foie gras supplier, Sonoma Foie Gras, in 2004 testified before the California legislature that tube feeding is the medically accepted way of feeding ill or injured ducks and geese, a practice she regularly teaches her clients to perform for home care of their birds. The principal difference between the feeding she saw at Sonoma Foie Gras – compared to her clients’ injured tube-fed birds – was that the foie gras ducks were unstressed by the process.  This is inconsistent with the picture of tortured, abused birds enduring an inhumane feeding procedure. Similarly, a delegate from the American Veterinary Association who visited Hudson Valley Foie Gras in 2005 announced that his personal position on the foie gras issue changed to the positive as a result of his visit, indicating that “tube feeding is less distressing than taking the rectal temperature of a cat.” As recently as last month, a journalist from the Village Voice ran a lengthy expose on American foie gras and concluded there is little evidence to support the argument of cruelty and suffering among the ducks.

The key to understanding the foie gras debate is to recognize that the issue has less to do with science, fact, or finding the truth about whether the treatment of these animals is humane, inhumane, or somewhere in between. Quite frankly, all of that is distraction. The only way to understand this issue is to regard it for what it truly is: naked political opportunism.

On a per-capita basis, the average American eats approximately 220 pounds of meat each year. Of that total, foie gras represents approximately four one-hundredths of an ounce per person. This is less than a smudge.  On that basis, eliminating all foie gras consumption in the United States would be the equivalent of converting a paltry 3,800 meat-eaters into vegetarians. Put into context, auto fatalities already eliminate – every year – the equivalent in meat consumption of more than ten times the entire U.S. market for foie gras. This may explain why the anti-foie camp is noticeably silent on the issue of traffic fatalities. Car crashes are actually working in their favor.

Foie gras serves as a spearpoint issue for anti-meat activists not because the practices of foie gras producers approach anything close to the worst within the world of animal husbandry, or because the industry itself is significant in size or growth. By comparison, Americans ate more than ten times more bison meat last year than foie gras.  Really, it’s that small.

Foie gras farmers – and those who serve it – are targeted for simple and eminently practical reasons: This is quite literally the smallest and most defenseless segment of the U.S. meat industry.  There are only three producers in the U.S.  Fewer than one in a hundred persons ever eat foie gras, and when they do, it is infrequently and in small amounts. Thanks in part to Walt Disney, the lovable duck serves as a great mascot for a publicity campaign.  And, while it is of dubious validity as a physiological comparison, it’s easily within the grasp for most of us to empathize with the horror of being force-fed through a tube.

Working to ban something that 99% of people never eat is not an act requiring great moral or physical courage in the same vein as was, say, the fight for civil rights in the U.S. or the fight for self rule in India. By comparison, the anti-foie gras movement is – at best – founded upon a shrewd political calculation in which the professed indignation of a few is used to harness the indifference of the many to the inherent political cowardice of elected officials, in order to achieve a desired political outcome.  In essence, it’s a confidence game in which participating meat-eaters, by agreeing to condemn something that they don’t care about, receive the equivalent of a get-out-of-jail card, i.e., the right to feel slightly less guilty as they bite into that factory-farmed McNugget.  Guilt and moral superiority are tradable currencies; the anti-foie gras camp exploits this to the hilt. And we let them.

The attack on foie gras consumption in the United States is therefore a tactic, similar to the bombing of Baghdad.  This is a relatively easy target, intended to shock the American public into putting animal rights at the forefront of public policy. Don’t start with a full frontal assault on a food that everyone eats – that would be futile. Better to pick off an easy target first and to make a public example of it.

As a political tactic, it has proven very successful.  Here in California, it exploited our elected officials’ abundant willingness to waste precious time and resources on the issues least relevant to the future of our state. In 2004, when our elected representatives could have been making progress toward political reform and improving the financial security of California, they instead spent thousands upon thousands of hours addressing the scourge represented by one small business, located in one corner of the state. Instead of saying, “This is a waste of our time, we have more important problems to solve” our brave politicians instead made the heroic choice to burnish their legislative record by knocking down a straw man.  Fast forward to 2009: Rome/Sacramento is burning, Californians suffer, and these brave champions of duck rights have offered no solutions to the real problems we confront on a daily basis.

The great success of the anti-foie gras movement has been based its ability to carve foie gras off as a distinct and separate issue from the rest of food production. Regarded in isolation, with no personal experience and without a balanced representation of the facts, of course most people oppose it. But lump it in with hamburger, chicken, and the rest of agribusiness, shine a light on all the discomforting practices within our food world and it would be an entirely different debate. Foie gras would be seen for what it is: less than a blip. Small groups of people dissecting the food world into socially acceptable vs. unacceptable categories is a recipe for terrible public policy and the worst in relativist ethics.

We do not purport to have all the answers about foie gras. Incanto continues to serve it  because we believe both that individuals ought to decide their own morality and that those who dedicate so much energy and animosity toward fighting it simply have their priorities wrong. If someone really wants to make a difference in the world, we can easily suggest a list of 10 other food-related issues each of which are at least an order of magnitude more significant than foie gras. A small amount of progress in any of which would improve more lives than will wiping the scourge of foie gras off the planet.  Let’s start with the fact that more than 12 million children here in the United States live in households where there is risk of hunger or malnutrition every day.  How about tackling that one?

Our (naïve) hope is that someday our country will have a constructive dialogue about food, in a calm adult voice and considering our food systems in their full context.  We hope that more people will be in a position to consider the impact their food choices have on the world. We recognize that the cynical political choice to use a wedge issue like foie gras to divide and conquer public opinion is easier, faster, and more effective at promoting a bigger cause.  But it’s a mistake to confuse success in a political campaign with being on the right side of an issue. If the argument against foie gras and against the consumption of meat in general boils down to “the ends don’t justify the means,” then for goodness sake don’t prove your point by the backwards manner in which you achieve your political victory.