In January, food service giant ARAMARK agreed not to include foie gras in any of the more than 2 billion meals that it serves in 22 countries every year after PETA sent company representatives undercover video footage of foie gras farms. A couple of weeks before that, the organizers of Ottawa's annual winter festival, Winterlude, bowed to animal rights activists' request to leave foie gras off the menu. "We all agreed that we'd be able to offer that experience without foie gras," said Winterlude spokesperson Lucie Caron. And Hawaiian state legislators introduced a bill that seeks to prohibit the sale of foie gras in Hawaii.
Why has foie gras become a faux pas? Perhaps because it is the only widely available food that is produced by intentionally inflicting an illness on an animal. Birds raised for foie gras are force-fed up to 4 pounds of grain and fat every day via a pneumatic tube that is shoved down their throats. This causes the birds' livers to expand to as much as 12 times their no rmal size, resulting in a disease known as "hepatic steatosis."
The birds often suffer from internal hemorrhaging, fungal and bacterial infections and hepatic encephalopathy, a brain disease that occurs when their livers fail. They can become so debilitated that they can only move by pushing themselves along the ground with their wings.
Undercover video footage recently shot inside foie gras farms in France--which exports foie gras all over the world--shows the almost unimaginable suffering endured by these birds. Most ducks are just a few months old when they are crammed individually into small iron maiden -"like cages that are barely larger than their own bodies. Their heads and necks protrude through a small opening for ease of force-feeding. The ducks are confined in this way--unable even to stretch a wing or take a single step in any direction--for 24 hours a day.
The birds' feathers are lank and dirty, their eyes are dull and lifeless, their breathing is labored and many are too ill to lift their heads. Many don't survive the ordeal -- an average of 20 percent of ducks on foie gras farms die before slaughter. (This is 10 to 20 times the average death rate on a regular duck farm.)
Believe it or not, foie gras has its apologists--namely "gourmets" who want to fool themselves into thinking that force-feeding birds until their livers balloon to the size of a small football isn't really all that bad. One recent visitor to a foie gras farm in New York seemed to be pleasantly surprised that he encountered "only" one dead bird on his prearranged, escorted tour.
But force-feeding birds has been denounced by every expert in the field of poultry welfare. Dr. Christine Nicol, a tenured poultry husbandry professor at the University of Bristol, believes that foie gras production "causes unacceptable suffering to these animals. ... It causes pain during and as a consequence of the force feeding, feelings of malaise as the body struggles to cope with extreme nutrient imbalance, and distress due to the forceful handling."
The scientific consensus is so strong that foie gras production has been banned in more than a dozen countries, including Israel, the U.K., Germany, Norway, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland , and it will be outlawed throughout the European Union by 2020. A California ban on the production and sale of foie gras goes into effect next year. Prince Charles refuses to allow it on Royal menus, and celebrity chefs Wolfgang Puck and Charlie Trotter refuse to serve it.
Until foie gras is off restaurant menus and store shelves for good, consumers can make a difference by refusing to touch the stuff with a 10-foot feeding tube.
Alisa Mullins is a senior writer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.PETA.org.