Media Coverage: The Village Voice

Is Foie Gras Torture?

By in Media Coverage: The Village Voice

Independent Media Coverage by



It’s very hard to watch the video about foie gras from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and not conclude that you should lay off fatty liver.

You’re shown a disheveled duck squeezed into a cage so small that the bird can’t open its wings. Disturbingly, it rocks back and forth. You then see an enormous barn full of birds, all of them immobilized in tiny cages. There are graphic shots of birds’ festering open sores with rats nibbling at them, some that are dying slowly, and some with holes punched through their necks. We learn that foie gras production has been banned in the United Kingdom, Israel, and Switzerland.

The Humane Society and the ASPCA have also joined PETA to oppose foie gras. They object to the force-feeding process, called “gavage,” which entails putting a metal tube down a duck’s throat to deliver a large amount of corn-based food that causes the liver to enlarge. The process, animal rights groups say, causes trauma to the duck’s esophagus and beak. Also, they say, the enlargement of the liver&-;from six to 10 times the normal size&-;causes the ducks to become deathly ill, struggle to walk and breathe, and vomit up undigested food. At the website of the humane group Farm Sanctuary, a photograph of a healthy, fluffy white duck rescued from a foie gras farm is contrasted with a shot of two ducks in tiny cages, both covered with their own yellow vomit.

“I am disturbed by the rough handling that creates myriad lesions&-;fractured limbs and infections of their feet,” says Dr. Holly Cheever, vice president of the New York Humane Society, a veterinarian, and an occasional consultant to PETA. “Pneumonia and esophageal scarring, fungal and bacterial infections, and, in rare cases, the rupture of the liver from excess pressure on a badly swollen organ-not to mention the semi-comatose and seizuring states I have seen in the end stages as the liver fails and the brain can no longer function . . . yet, the feeder will grab a seizuring or semi-comatose bird and force the tube down to continue the process of liver engorgement. Surely you do not need a veterinary affidavit to label this as cruel?” Cheever says that the esophagi are often “blown open” and that the fattened liver becomes profoundly diseased, which causes the birds to die a slow death, beset with seizures and unable to walk.

Groups that oppose the production of foie gras have pushed for city and state bans on the product, sometimes with success, as in California, and sometimes with temporary success, as in Chicago. Meanwhile, various groups continue to hold demonstrations outside restaurants that serve the product, and the Humane Society has brought lawsuits against a local farm.

After watching the gruesome images, it’s not hard to understand the legislative concern. No one wants tortured ducks on their watch. After all, we adore ducks-Daffy, Donald, even the Aflac duck-because we find them funny and appealing, much more so than chickens or turkeys.

However, in some cases, legislators have reversed course. In 2007, New York State Assemblyman Michael Benjamin withdrew his name from a proposed bill banning foie gras production in the state after he visited the biggest foie gras farm in the country, Hudson Valley Foie Gras.

What did he see there? Fortunately, Hudson Valley is only about two hours from the city. I figured the only way to know for sure whether foie gras equals torture was to go see it produced for myself. I called a contact at the gourmet food company D’Artagnan, which works closely with Hudson Valley, and asked if I could look around. I’d want to see the force-feeding. And the slaughter. And bring a photographer.

“No problem,” came the reply.

In the United States, foie gras production is tiny compared to other animal husbandry. There are four American foie gras farms, and all raise ducks rather than geese, selling not only livers but also breast and leg meat, sausages made with scraps, and down from the feathers. Hudson Valley offers duck testicles and duck tongues, too.

And although Hudson Valley is the biggest foie gras producer in the country, processing 4,000 to 6,000 ducks a week, it raises birds by the traditional model, instead of the industrial one. That means that everything&-;from the egg hatching to the 21-day force-feeding period and the slaughter-happens on the same farm, tended to by the same workers. So I’d be able to see it all.

When I told Cheever that I was visiting Hudson Valley, she said that I’d be witnessing an elaborate cover-up. “With 150 people living on-site, they can cherry-pick out the disastrously sick ducks,” she said. She also didn’t believe that the farm force-feeds for only 21 days before slaughtering the ducks. “By the end of the third to fourth weeks, their breathing is strained and their limbs may be lame from infection and injury or fractures, but YOU will not see those birds,” she wrote to me in an e-mail.

Hudson Valley Foie Gras is not actually in the Hudson Valley, but in a sparsely populated, rather desolate town called Ferndale in the Catskills region. First stop was the home of Marcus Henley, the farm manager at Hudson Valley, who lives with his wife, Sohnnie (pronounced “Shaun-ie”), on 12 acres, with a black cat, a canary, and some koi. Both are from Arkansas. Henley studied science in college, served in the Army, and then started managing poultry farms in 1983. He came to Hudson Valley in 2001.

On their kitchen table, they’d laid out a spread of products from the farm. There was duck confit, smoked duck breast, deviled duck eggs, duck prosciutto, torchon of foie gras, and foie gras butter-a heart-stopping concoction of rendered foie gras fat and black truffles. The Henleys are 95 percent vegetarian, for health reasons, so this meal was unusual for them.

Henley shrugged when I asked him about the first time he had tried the product. “A boy from Arkansas doesn’t get a lot of chance to eat foie gras,” he said. I told him that I’d spoken with Cheever, and that she insisted I would not be allowed to see the ducks in the later stages of force-feeding and that the sick ducks would have been removed so I couldn’t see them. He laughed. “It’s not necessary to do that,” he said. “Anyone can come anytime, unannounced. But she says we lie, that we’re hiding a horror chamber. We have national-level vets come visit-we have journalists and chefs. How am I going to trick these people?”

Henley assured me that the next morning, when I visited the farm, I’d be able to see what was behind every door. “And there is every possibility that, at some point, we will see a dead duck,” he cautioned. The farm has a mortality rate of about 5 percent (from when they’re hatched to when they reach 15 weeks, which is when they’re slaughtered), so some animals do die along the way-as they do at every farm.

I’m no bird expert, so that night at the hotel, I made a list of the criteria that Dr. Temple Grandin had given me in a phone interview. Grandin is a universally respected animal-welfare expert whose opinions are esteemed by groups as radically far apart as McDonald’s and PETA. Grandin cautioned that she hadn’t been to a foie gras farm herself, but she would say that “ducks and geese will do a certain amount of gorging-that’s natural.” She explained that the birds prepare for migration by storing fat in their livers and beneath their skin. “An enlarged liver is not necessarily sick, but it’s a matter of how far you push it. Are you overloading the birds’ biology to the point where it falls apart? Is the duck so big and distorted that it can hardly walk?” She mentioned that birds do not have a gag reflex as humans do, but that the handlers must be careful not to hurt the birds’ esophagi with the feeding tube.

Check for bright eyes, clean feathers, foot conditions, and the level of the smell of ammonia in the barn, she said. The birds won’t be hungry, so they wouldn’t flock to the feeders, but I should watch to see if they tolerate the feeding or try to get away. And if they do show aversion, I should try to figure out if it’s because they don’t want to be handled or don’t want to be fed.

Both Grandin and Cheever agreed that it was important that I see the ducks in the later stages of force-feeding-if any ducks were sick, it would be these. But Cheever was convinced that the farm wouldn’t show me those birds.

The next morning, I drove down the narrow road surrounded on either side with fields blanketed in snow and lit by a yellow moon about to set. The farm was at the end of the road, made up of long, low buildings constructed of lumber and corrugated steel. The structures looked out of date, having been built in the 1950s, but Izzy Yanay, the Israeli-born owner of the farm, said he’s unable to put money into improvements until he’s free from legal bills, the result of ongoing lawsuits from the Humane Society.

We met up with Henley and started to look around. The first thing I noticed was the lack of tiny cages. Hudson Valley raises its ducks in free-feeding barns until they’re 12 weeks old. After that, the birds are moved to the force-feeding barns, but instead of being put into individual cages, they’re housed in relatively spacious, open-topped group pens about the size of an office cubicle. In fact, none of the four foie gras farms in the United States currently uses the individual cages that have shown up in industrial farms in Canada and France. Hudson Valley’s products are certified “cage-free.”

Henley then took me to watch the oldest ducks get loaded into a rolling cart bound for the slaughter room. They waddled to the front of their pens and regarded us curiously. The birds that finished their feeding regime yesterday were the ones being loaded up for the big goodbye, while the others, who were on day 21 that day, were being fed.

The room is lined with four rows of pens that run lengthwise down the barn. There were 11 ducks in each four-by-six-foot pen, which are raised about a foot off the ground; wire mesh forms the floors of the pens, so that duck waste can fall through it into the channel beneath. The place smelled funky, and faintly of ammonia, but not overwhelmingly so. So far, the sights could not have been more different from the horrifying images I’d seen on the Internet.

Henley said that he’d been making some changes on the farm with the help of animal-welfare consultants, including Dr. Ericka Voogd (a colleague of Grandin’s) and Dr. Tirath Sandhu, an avian scientist who is retired from the Cornell Veterinary School. One of the alterations could be found in the nurseries, our next stop.

This nursery held four-day-old chicks and smelled woodsy from the fluffy sawdust bedding covering the floor. The flock of yellow babies cheeped and toddled around the warm room. Until recently, the chicks lived on just one level of sawdust, but moisture from their drinking water would drip down into the bedding. At the prompting of the welfare consultants, the farm installed a wire-mesh ramp on one side of the room, leading up to a level wire-mesh floor, where the water nipples are now located. Moisture drips down through the mesh, and the bedding stays dry. Plus, said Henley, “it adds a level of complexity to their environment.”

Henley then took us through a door into a similar room, which held nine-week-olds that looked nearly full-grown. The mass of feathers moved as one, scampering away from us as we entered the room. “You have to move slowly, or they’ll stampede,” Henley told us. We walked slowly out into the center of the room, and it was like parting the sea-but a sea of ducks.

Once the birds hit 12 weeks, they’re moved from the growing areas&-;where they waddle around freely and have windows for natural light-to the group pens, where the 21-day force-feeding begins and the room is lit artificially. (It does seem like a step down in living arrangements.)

We headed back to the buildings where the feeding was taking place. A worker climbed into the pen with a stool and a wooden divider. (Each worker has a group of 320 to 350 ducks that he or she feeds every day during the 21-day regimen; workers whose ducks have low mortality rates and high-quality livers get bonuses.) A tube with a funnel at the top was strung from a wire above, and the worker slid it along into the pen she was about to work in. The birds clustered on one side of the pen, but didn’t show nearly as much aversion to humans as the nine-week-olds we had just seen did-the older ducks seemed less alarmed by humans, which is hard to reconcile with if they were being tortured.

The woman sat on the stool, put the wooden divider in the middle of the pen, and reached for the first bird. She positioned the bird’s body under her leg, eased the tube down the bird’s throat, and poured a cupful of feed into the funnel above. A rotating auger spins in the funnel to make sure all of it goes down the pipe, but the food is delivered by gravity. The birds did not relish being grabbed, but the actual process with the tube didn’t seem to bother them much. They sat with the tube down their throat for a very short period of time-about 10 to 15 seconds-without struggling or showing sign of distress. The whole process-pick up, position, feed, and release-took about 30 seconds. I watched the birds closely as they walked away from the feeding. Each waddled calmly away, looking unfazed: no breathing problems, no vomiting, and no trouble walking. Their feathers were fairly clean, and I didn’t see any lesions on their feet or bodies.

But these ducks were only on their 12th day of force-feeding, so I asked to see the ducks on their 21st day again-this time, to pay more attention to the details of the feeding. We went back up to the area where we had started from. Some of the cages that were full when we saw them earlier were now half-empty, because some ducks actually go to slaughter earlier than the 22nd day. The feeder feels the base of each duck’s esophagus (sometimes called a “pseudo-crop”), where feed is held that has yet to be digested. Birds that haven’t digested the last feeding are marked with blue chalk and not fed. If they still haven’t digested by the next feeding, they’re not fed yet again and are marked with pink chalk and taken with the next batch to be slaughtered.

The birds on their 21st day of feeding appeared very much like the ones at 12 days, but were fatter and had dirtier feathers. The birds are bathed on the second and 10th days of feeding, but Henley said the farm was working with its animal-welfare consultants to find a way to keep the birds’ feathers cleaner and thus prevent sores. These birds’ reactions to the force-feeding were indistinguishable from those of the 12th-day birds. I looked for the signs that I’d been told would show me that the birds were desperately ill, but these birds, on their 21st day, were not having trouble walking or breathing, they weren’t having seizures, and they weren’t comatose.

I was at the farm for five hours, all told. I saw thousands of ducks, but not a drop of duck vomit. I didn’t see an animal that was having a hard time breathing or walking, or a duck with a bloodied beak or blown-open esophagus. I did see one dead duck. And now I was going to see many more, as I went to the area where they are slaughtered.

Just before they are killed, the birds are hung upside-down (the most common poultry-slaughtering method) and hitched to a moving belt. A breast rub-installed at the suggestion of the animal-welfare consultants-stabilizes the upside-down birds and keeps them calm. Then they’re knocked unconscious by a dip in electrified water, and, finally, a man in a yellow rubber suit uses a three-inch knife to make a deep cut in their necks. It all happens very quickly. A stainless-steel tub collects the crimson blood. It’s not pleasant, but not as difficult to watch as you might think. And if I can’t deal with it, I shouldn’t be eating meat.

Soon afterward, I remembered to ask to see the esophagi removed from the slaughtered birds so I could check if they’d been damaged. I was taken past the workers slicing off the garnet breasts and legs and weighing cream-colored livers, and back into the slaughtering room. One worker was slicing off the feet, heads, and necks of the just-plucked ducks and placing those bits into a large garbage bin.

Rick Bishop, Hudson Valley’s marketing director, plunged his bare hand into the bin and brought up a floppy, yellowish tube. It was stretchy, smooth, glossy, and thick. He turned part of it inside out, and I looked for abrasions, punctures, and bruises-anything that a layperson could identify as a sign that this esophagus had lived a tortured life. Nothing. I looked at several more esophagi plucked randomly from the bin, and all of them were pale pinkish-yellow and intact-no wounds, no blood, and no bruises or scrapes.

After the inspection, I sat down with Yanay, the owner, in his office. It didn’t take much to set him off-animal activists are driving him nuts.

“You say I’m torturing ducks? Well, let’s go and see. I invite the whole world to come and see,” he said, sounding upset.

So where are the terrible images coming from? Some are from industrial farms in France, where individual cages are common. But Yanay blames bad farm management, not foie gras production itself. “Rats eating ducks?” he said. “You have a rat problem!”

One form of good management, Yanay added, is having each worker responsible for a particular group of ducks. They can track mortality and injuries for each worker-and workers who don’t measure up are fired.

Yanay said that his farm is under a microscope, and his legal costs this month were $50,000. The Humane Society has hit the farm with several unsuccessful lawsuits. The latest one-which the New York Supreme Court dismissed, but is now in appeal-accuses the farm (and the New York State Department of Agriculture) of selling an adulterated food product, because, the plaintiffs say, the livers of force-fed ducks are diseased.

The notion that foie gras is diseased liver is often cited by opponents of the food. Cheever’s e-mail to me described how, in the later stages of force-feeding, “air sac and lung volumes are compromised, and they begin to show metabolic illness from liver function impairment.”

But Dr. Jaime Ruiz, director of Cornell’s duck-research laboratory (and who was at pains to note that he did not support or oppose foie gras production) told me, “The farmers that I know here in New York and France handle the birds carefully, not feeding them above the physiological limits of the birds.” He also said that he did not think that force-feeding, done correctly, would cause pain and that he does not consider an enlarged liver to be diseased.

I also called Dr. Sandhu, the retired avian scientist who consults with Hudson Valley Foie Gras on animal welfare. “I have been working with ducks all my life, for 30 years,” he said. “[Foie gras] is not a disease. It has been shown by experiments that in birds with fatty livers, if you stop force-feeding, the liver comes back to a normal status.” I asked him if the liver in foie gras birds was able to function. “Yes,” he said. “It still functions normally and removes toxins. The bird is still standing; it is not sitting down. The weight of the liver is not causing the birds to collapse-they are walking and interacting with other birds.”

Animal rights’ groups often cite a 1998 report on foie gras from the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare. The 93-page report, though eventually concluding that “force-feeding, as currently practiced, is detrimental to the welfare of birds,” is not exactly the slam dunk for animal rights’ groups that I had been led to believe.

The report does not propose ending foie gras production, but instead puts forth recommendations for improving the way it’s done. In fact, a part of the last section reads, “Since foie gras needs to be produced in order to satisfy the consumers’ demand, it is important to produce it in conditions that are acceptable from the welfare viewpoint.” The committee’s suggestions include making sure that the liver size isn’t causing distress to the animal, properly training all persons in charge of the birds, and banning the use of small, individual cages.

Meanwhile, the debate is not a theoretical problem for Knife + Fork, a small restaurant on the Lower East Side. Chef and owner Damien Brassel serves foie gras from the Hudson Valley farm, and he’s convinced that the product is humane. “They go out of their way to show everyone exactly how it’s done,” he says, and suggests that the protesters go see it for themselves. Instead, the protesters have been outside his restaurant on the weekends, chanting things like, “Damien Brassel: How many geese have you tortured today?” The other night, Brassel went out to offer them some foie gras, which did not amuse them. “I take it personally,” he says. “They’re standing out there in leather jackets and Ugg boots.” But the protesters’ efforts are actually causing Brassel to sell more foie gras-customers have been requesting it, and he’s added it to his tasting menu.

For now, protesters haven’t been showing up outside Brassel’s apartment or threatening his customers. But, as Mark Caro recounts in his book The Foie Gras Wars, due out in March, these tactics have recently been used by activists in Philadelphia. In one case, the general manager of a restaurant recalled that a protester screamed at a customer, “You should die of cancer!” and another restaurateur recounted that protesters would yell, “We know where you live, and we’re gonna get you!” Sometimes, the protesters would actually show up in the neighborhood, or a child would come home saying that someone told her that her father murders ducks.

Why are activists so devoted to this issue? Most of the organizations against foie gras also advocate vegetarianism or veganism. If you generally oppose the manipulation of animals for food, you’re going to oppose foie gras all the more, because the production does manipulate the animal more than usual. Manipulation does not necessarily equal abuse, though. But it’s manipulation of a different sort that is at work in the videos I watched before my Hudson Valley visit. Those images are not representative of the reality at the nation’s largest foie gras farm.

The fact that foie gras is delicious is nice, but it is also besides the point. If hanging puppies by their ears and cutting off their paws produced the most fantastic meat imaginable, I wouldn’t eat it and neither would you. Just because we eat animals doesn’t mean that we don’t draw lines about the welfare of the animals we’re going to eat. I support humanely raised (not penned) veal, and I buy cage-free eggs. I don’t think it’s OK to cut the fin off a shark and throw it back into the water. Personally, I would avoid foie gras from the producers in France and Canada that use individual cages. The fact that some industrial farms elsewhere are making foie gras in inhumane ways doesn’t mean that all foie gras production is inhumane. You can buy humanely raised chicken, or you can buy chicken that’s had a nasty, brutal life. The same goes for foie gras.

If I had seen with my own eyes that Hudson Valley produced foie gras by abusing ducks, this article would have turned out very differently. But that just wasn’t the case.