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Friday, October 13, 2006

Foie gras follies

Earlier this year, foodies in my town died a little when Chicago passed a local ordinance banning the sale of foie gras. The law followed a 2004 equivalent imposing similar restrictions on the production and distribution of fatty goose liver throughout California. Recently, a New Jersey assemblyman proposed a similar ordinance for the Garden State, which would have perhaps the most impact of the three because New Jersey is where D’Artagnan Farms is located. D’Artagnan is an artisanal enterprise famed for introducing high-end foie gras and other game products, and its demise could cripple access to high-quality, fresh foie gras in the U.S.

What might explain this recent uptick in concern about an obscure luxury good? The easy explanation is that raising foie gras requires barbaric treatment of animals and that government is finally responding to this concern. “Our laws are a reflection of our society's values, and our culture does not condone the torture of small innocent animals,” explained one Chicago alderman who supported the bill.

I contest this explanation and offer an alternative one after the break.

The alderman’s asserted explanation doesn’t work because society regularly does condone the torture of innocent animals—big or small—for the production of food and other products. The gory details are spelled out in countless books, with the definitive classic remaining Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation.

One might try to distinguish foie gras by reference to the distinctive practice of gavage: force-feeding the birds through a tube in order to fatten their livers. This practice is undeniably gory, but it’s no more so than a lot of other cruel practices to which animals are subjected on factory farms. Chickens, for example, typically have their beaks severed so they don’t peck each other to death out of stress induced by the filthy, overcrowded conditions in which they’re raised.

Moreover, opponents of the foie gras bans have pointed out that geese have insensitive necks and lack a gag reflex, so they don’t suffer as much as a human might assume during gavage. Plus, chefs have pointed out that to get really good product, you have to bypass factory farms altogether, because only carefully and humanely raising geese in a free-range setting can produce foie gras worth eating. The irony thus might be that despite the arresting visual images of geese being force-fed via tubes , those birds might actually be better off than many of their counterparts on family farms.

In light of all this, something else has to be going on, but what? I think there are a confluence of two factors at play. The first is the choice of animal-rights activists to focus on a single, narrow issue. A few years back, foie gras emerged as a particularly volatile issue, punctuated by the campaign of intimidation by the hard-core wing of the animal liberation movement against a San Francisco chef, Laurent Manrique, who had planned to open a foie gras specialty store and restaurant. The Manrique incident created previously absent visibility for the anti-foie gras movement, and even caused some high-profile chefs to stop serving the food.

But I don’t think this visibility would have translated into legislative action unless foie gras had been a high-end luxury good. A legislator can ban foie gras and strike a populist stance while alienating only a small cadre of foodies far too small to make an electoral difference. But let that same legislator come out against cruelty in raising chicken or beef generally, and now you’re talking about something that affects a huge swath of society. I have a hard time imagining that legislator invoking that same language about society not condoning animal torture in the latter case.

So while one could read the recent spate of foie gras bans as a beachhead that may lead to wider restrictions on cruel animal practices, I think it's really more a product of political and circumstantial happenstance. Indeed, in Chicago the ban has met with more ridicule than outrage, and there's already talk of repealing it. All this said, my impression has always been that all factory farming (foie gras-related and otherwise) is cruel and deeply problematic. I’m pretty moderate on animal rights, and have no necessary objection to humanely raising and killing livestock for the good of people. But while I think the general purpose behind the foie gras bans—limiting animal torture—is commendable, the whole phenomenon strikes me as strange because these laws are so over- and under-inclusive.

Posted by Dave_Fagundes on October 13, 2006 at 06:05 PM in Current Affairs, Property | Permalink


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I found a really funny blog on freedomhaters.org that really nailed the fois gras argument and pointed out how stupid and cruel it is. The blog is called something like Fois Gras for the Holidays.
You got to check it out:


Posted by: rted | Jan 6, 2009 2:16:30 AM


I liked the proposal, but in a seminar on 'animal ethics and rights' I gave this summer, the students raised the problems you mention here. However, everyone seemed to think that the availability of milk labeled 'organic,' and 'organic' labeling in general, represented progress of sorts. The consensus appeared to be that if products were local or independent (i.e., not part of any agribusiness conglomerate or TNC; admittedly, it's hard to keep track of such things these days unless you religously read the Business section of the paper), the labels could be (presumptively) trusted. Of course this was a class of largely middle to upper middle class consumers in a fairly politically savvy town (even if perhaps naive on this subject), so they're not representative of all consumers.

Agreed: regulatory capture is a recalcitrant problem. In short, I think you ask the right questions (and I lack the answers).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Oct 15, 2006 11:11:39 PM

Hey Patrick,
Emerson wasn't America's first philosopher for nothing! Thanks on that pointer -- and I too recommend it to anyone else reading the blog. I have to say, though, I'm not that blown away by their proposal, to be honest. Leslie gave the paper at a conference at Duke not too long ago and it is a creative thought, I admit. But he had no real answer for the problem with labeling that "green" and "organic" disclosure advocates came up against when USDA tried to do it about 5 years ago: too easy for those with real power to commandeer the regulatory process. Hence, "organic" labeling is a sham today on many issues and is not likely to be fixed any time soon because of how entrenched existing producer practices became around the rules. The fact is, producers know how to play the label game much better than consumers do. Assuming the disclosure has to be at the point of sale (which they do), if the government does the disclosure regime, I'm not that hopeful.

Now if an independent third party did it, that would be different. But that would seem to turn on some extraordinary events incentivizing producers to cooperate to such an end -- no? Where's the catalyst when you need one?

Posted by: Jamie Colburn | Oct 15, 2006 10:40:32 PM


Not for nothing did Emerson write that a 'foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,' which I take to be a variation on the theme of the 'logical stringency' you refer to here. I agree with you, and at some point many little, inconsistent steps may add up to a quantity with qualitative difference (e.g., 'tipping point' or 'social cascade,' etc.).

In the search for a 'better idea,' I think a proposal by Jeff Leslie and Cass Sunstein merits attention and discussion: 'Animal Rights Without Controversy,' Leslie, Jeffrey and Sunstein, Cass R., 'Animal Rights without Controversy,' Law and Contemporary Problems, Forthcoming Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=890666

Here's the abstract:

Many consumers would be willing to pay something to reduce the suffering of animals used as food. The problem is that existing markets do not disclose the relevant treatment of animals, even though that treatment would trouble many consumers. Steps should be taken to promote disclosure, so as to fortify market processes and to promote democratic discussion of the treatment of animals. In the context of animal welfare, a serious problem is that people's practices ensure outcomes that defy their existing moral commitments. A disclosure regime could improve animal welfare without making it necessary to resolve the most deeply contested questions in this domain.

And thanks for the link to the Israeli Supreme Court holding (I'm most intrigued).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Oct 14, 2006 9:10:07 PM

I've enjoyed the posts and am, myself, rather ambivalent about the foie gras bans. Happily, democratic politics (and especially local democratic politics) need not answer to the logical stringency that judicial opinions, administrative agencies' rulemakings and adjudications, and even academic writing must. Yes, the way 9 billion chickens per year in the US alone are raised and slaughtered probably is, all things considered, more cruelty per animal (and is certainly more cruelty as a whole) than that associated with foie gras. But so what (and, incidentally, check out an Israeli Supreme Court holding from 2003 on the matter, translated at: http://www.animallaw.info/nonus/cases/cas_pdf/Israel2003case.pdf)?

The voters were more easily convinced it was needless cruelty in this particular product's case and maybe this is the first step in a long journey. Maybe veal will be next in the next city. (I live next to Amherst, MA, and that is not as impossible as it sounds, trust me.) Until someone comes up with a better idea that can actually make it's way into the law, this is where animal welfare activism is doing the most good, isn't it?

Posted by: Jamie Colburn | Oct 14, 2006 8:48:28 PM

Thanks, Patrick!

Posted by: Darian Ibrahim | Oct 14, 2006 6:45:39 PM

Professor Ibrahim himself has written a couple of nice articles on animal experimentation and welfare (listed in bibliography below and available through SSRN).

For those with a hearty appetite for such things, I have a bibliography (articles and books) on 'animal ethics, rights & law' available upon request (a little less than 500 entries, largely after 1980).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Oct 13, 2006 10:26:51 PM

The best book on this subject is Gary Francione's "Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?". I'd encourage anyone with an interest in animal welfare or animal rights to take a look.

Posted by: Darian Ibrahim | Oct 13, 2006 9:53:38 PM

As you may know, Peter Singer (and his co-author in a recent book, Jim Mason) has taken to referring to those who refuse to eat any meat unless they are convinced (or assured) it is the product of animals who have been raised in a humane manner (i.e., not factory-farmed), as 'compassionate omnivores.' Some readers may be interested in two posts by Thomas Nadelhoffer back in June at Leiter Reports that discussed this topic ('Non-Compassionate Omnivorism?' and 'Posner's Pragmatic Moral Skepticism'): http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2006/06/compassionate_o.html and

What's rather interesting is that in practice (or in effect) at least, the 'compassionate omnivore' is not that different from Roger Scruton's 'virtuous carnivore,' as both 'ideal types' consume meat, focusing their concern on the sorts of lives (relatively free from suffering; living the sorts of lives in which animals flourish as the kinds of animals they are) the animals had prior to being killed for human consumption. Interesting because Singer's utilitarianism is a far cry from Scruton's virtue ethics, although of course the latter is also concerned with the attitude we adopt towards animals while they are alive, as they are killed, and while we are consuming them (see his side of a debate with Singer reprinted in Harper's Magazine, 'A Carnivore's Credo,' [May 2006], as well as his little book, Animal Rights and Wrongs, 3rd ed., 2000). Scruton goes so far as to argue that a 're-moralization' (I think it would be better described as 're-sacralization') of our eating habits would lead to 'conscientious carnivores' with 'a motive to raise animals kindly.' I'm reminded here of Jacob Neusner's discussion of the transition from Temple sacrifice in ancient Judaism to the celebratory family meal of Rabbinic Judaism (see: A Short History of Judaism: Three Meals, Three Epochs, 1992), best viewed as of a piece with the obligations of *tza`ar ba`alei chayyim*, which imposes a general concern for the welfare of animals, while allowing for their ritual slaughter and consumption. This should not be construed as some Jewish variant on the theme of 'animal rights,' as J. David Bleich has made clear, for both the animal and its guardian lack proper judicial standing (*persona standi in judicio*). Bleich would say the religious and moral motivation here is actually (as it is later with Kant) 'concern for the moral welfare of the human agent rather than concern for the physical welfare of animals, i.e., the underlying concern is the need to purge inclinations of cruelty and to develop compassion in human beings.' [There are Jewish justifications of vegetarianism I've not discussed here.] (My own beliefs on this subject are a bit different than those described here.)

A bit off (main) topic, I know, but within the ambit of issues broached in your post.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Oct 13, 2006 8:28:11 PM

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