Book Review: Taking sides in The Foie Gras Wars

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Although it may not be the most grotesque image in food production — that's reserved for industrial chicken houses and pre-skinny Paul Prudhomme — it's difficult to think happy thoughts when confronted with gavage. This traditional method of fattening goose or duck livers usually starts with a funnel filled with corn-based feed attached to a long metal tube. Grab a bird, shove the tube down its throat, release the right amount of food, then send the animal waddling away. No matter where you stand on animals as foodstuff, it's not a pretty sight.

Problem is, gavage is the only way to produce foie gras, one of the most prized and delicious of the world's luxury food items. And, for the past decade, one of the most contentious.

Mark Caro, author of recently released book The Foie Gras Wars, entered the fray at a relatively calm moment in 2005, when famed Chicago chef Charlie Trotter made public that he would no longer serve the stuff due to animal cruelty concerns. Caro was an entertainment reporter at the Chicago Tribune who wrote up the Trotter story for the paper, then followed the foie fight from the California to France, with frequent stops in his hometown.

His Wars follows the same formula of many recent looks at the troubled food system: loads of facts interspersed with interviews of the participants on both sides, seasoned with plenty of personal narrative experiences to keep the more casual food fans interested. Although his trips to farms in the U.S. and France give the reader a personal glimpse at the realities of foie production — for both good and ill — it's his insider's take on the actual battles of this war that have meat.

Whether it's the California foie gras ban of 2005, the Chicago ban of 2006, or the occasional skirmishes over the livers in Philadelphia and New York, the two sides of this war are easily identified. On one hand are organized animal rights activists, many of whom see foie gras as a wedge issue that's an easy sell and may get their foot in the door for much more pervasive protections of food animals. On the other side are, well, chefs and foie producers. Maybe some consumers. Can you already tell who's winning this fight?

Here in the U.S., foie gras is an uncommon treat. Few among the masses know what it is, and even fewer have tried it. Tell the average person on the street that to make it you have to shove food down a duck's throat a couple times a day for two to three weeks until their liver is several times it's normal size, then follow that up with incendiary photos and video, and you can make an anti-foie convert from even the most uncaring carnivore. All chefs have on their side is a plate of delicious food. And, maybe, the facts.

Caro attempts to chronicle the animal rights activists' role in this war with a reporter's objectivity, but it's difficult to condone much of the behavior. Like in so many hot-button issues, it's apparent that some activists manipulate the system and adopt an ends-justifies-the-means style of social change. In Philadelphia, that means picketing restaurants while screaming through bullhorns about a chef's cruelty, occasionally yelling "we know where you live." Idle threats, maybe, until the activists show up in the chef's neighborhood and hand out fliers asking why the restaurateur supports animal cruelty. Legal and, maybe, even fair.

When politics is the field, the mere presence of organization, lawyers and money made animal rights activists the clear favorites over the U.S.'s few, unallied producers of foie gras. And what state senator wants to deal with the threat of picketers outside their house?

Throughout Wars, Caro never makes a final judgement on the morality of foie gras production, although his examples make some clear distinctions as to where individuals might draw the line. There are essentially three foie producers in the U.S.. None of them use individual cages or the seriously industrialized processes common in France or Canada. Their ducks live vastly better — and longer — lives than any other mass-produced bird, and the claims that gavage induces disease and severe stress have largely been rebutted by independent auditors.

If you want to cut cruelty from your diet, start with supermarket veal. Then chicken. Then pork. Then start thinking about giving up that perfectly seared slab of luscious foie gras. But read The Foie Gras Wars first.

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