One thing California is not these days is laid-back. The foie gras ban that legislators passed in 2004 takes effect on July 1, and for the past few months activists on both sides have unleashed an endless summer of strife on the Golden State. Is force-feeding ducks (a process called gavage) to produce the swollen livers elevated as foie gras an act of animal cruelty? Or are ducks genetically programmed to gorge? Vegan picket lines, chefs packing heat: It hasn't been pretty.
One strong piece of evidence to suggest that American foie gras is humane: Sarah DiGregorio’s 2009 Village Voice article “Live and Let Liver” (online it's titled “Is Foie Gras Torture?”). DiGregorio was a staff writer and restaurant critic at the Voice; she described a five-hour visit to Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Ferndale, New York, where she'd gone to see for herself if the production process looked anything like cruelty. It’s a beautifully straightforward piece of journalism that became a finalist for both James Beard and IACP awards.
Before her visit, DiGregorio talked with a foie critic from the New York Humane Society, watched disturbing videos of caged ducks covered in vomit. And she asked humane slaughter advocate Temple Grandin for signs of what stressed or suffering birds would look like. But after five hours at the farm, DiGregorio was convinced that what she’d seen was not at all cruel—disturbing, in the slaughter room, but not inhumane.
Even as I’ve gone public with my own ambivalence about foie gras, defenders like Ken Frank, the chef of La Toque in Napa, California, have revived DiGregorio’s story as prima facie evidence of the soundness of gavage. I wondered how DiGregorio felt about foie these days, three and a half years after her story hit, especially amid all the noise of California’s high-decibel debate in these last days of legal foie. Is she comfortable with her story’s status as definitive proof of humane practices in the foie industry?
Now a senior editor at Food Network Magazine (she also freelances for the Wall Street Journal and New York Times), DiGregorio gave me an update.
What made you write your 2009 piece in the first place?
Really, because I was doing so much restaurant reviewing at the time, and foie gras was something I was coming across more and more in my daily life. You hear so many wildly varying things about it. I came to it generally curious, because on the one side you hear, “Oh, it’s fine,” and on the other hand you hear it’s torture. I wanted to see for myself. And, in the last decade it’s been an ongoing issue. It seemed newsworthy.
Have you followed these final weeks of the foie gras debate in California?
Not a lot. It strikes me that whenever the question of a ban comes up, people always fall into their camps. The one camp is that foie gras is torture. The other camp is, “Don’t tell us what to eat!”
I think a lot of the more casual opposition is coming from a really well-meaning place: There’s much more awareness now about how our meat is produced, what kinds of lives the animals we eat have lived and how they've died. That's a good thing, but it's also a really big, complicated subject, and hard to tackle. So that anxiety has been displaced onto this tiny subset of animal husbandry: the production of foie gras—which is not inherently cruel or abusive.
And I believe the focus has been placed there by animal rights organizations, which don’t believe in eating any meat, period. I respect people who’ve decided not to eat animals. But if that’s the case, I feel like this discussion is not for you—I don’t know why you’re even involved in debating foie gras. To me, this is a discussion about under what circumstance is it OK to eat meat.
What about all those photos and videos of sick, tortured-looking ducks?
It’s really easy to manipulate people around the subject of foie gras. It’s easy to give people just a little bit of information—show them a photo of a duck in a cage from a factory farm in France, for instance. Or just tell them the production of foie gras involves force-feeding. If you don’t look into the bird’s biology or find out exactly how the feeding is done, or see it for yourself, it sounds terrible. And who has time to look into it in detail? Most people don’t have the time or the inclination to look into this expensive product that they never eat anyway. So misinformation and hyperbole continue to spread.
How do you feel about your story being used as definitive pro-foie evidence?
I’m happy that people think that it’s a useful resource—I hope people will read it carefully and see I believe that foie gras is very much like other meat, in that it can be produced humanely, or not. I don’t believe that the process is inherently inhumane—for me that’s backed up by my visit to that one particular farm.
The images you see in a lot of that anti-foie information are most likely from industrial farms in France or Canada. I wouldn’t feel comfortable buying foie gras from those farms, just as I wouldn’t feel comfortable buying meat from factory farms. The takeaway is that if you’re going to choose to be a meat eater, to be conscientious about what you’re buying, and to look into the practices at the farm that raises it.
Do you order foie gras in restaurants these days?
I don’t, to be honest. It’s really only a matter of not doing nearly as much fine dining anymore (most people don’t). But if I were in a restaurant, I would just inquire where the foie gras comes from, if it was American produced. If it was, I’d feel comfortable ordering it.