Today's Salon has an exchange between Anthony Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman about a proposed foie gras ban in New Jersey. Who cares? Well, the Garden State is home to D'Artagnan, one of America's premier foie gras producers. Bourdain, the trash-talking celebrity chef, best-selling author, and offal endorser, is pissed. Ruhlman — chef and coauthor of "The French Laundry Cookbook" — is no less passionate, but a lot more controlled, as he usually is in his numerous guest posts over at Meg Hourihan's food blog, Megnut.
They start out ranting about the E. coli scare, animal-rights activists, and the food police — a perfect storm of "righteous people who want to ban everything because it might be unsafe [along] with all the people who want to ban everything because it might be cruel, and the people who want to ban everything because it might be unhealthy." But then they move into interesting territory, defending the nation's top foie gras producers as unfair targets because they do use humane practices as much as possible — and because duck numbers in this country are dwarfed by other livestock, which are far more cruelly treated. (The 8 billion chickens killed for meat aren't even protected by humane slaughter regulations.)
I'm going to reproduce a long section from the exchange, both for those who aren't Salon subscribers, and because I think it provides the best summary I've seen so far on what's wrong with this poultry version of Prohibition. The short version: Don't like it? Fine, but don't ban it; just don't eat it — or only eat it from reputable, more humane providers.
Bourdain: The worst thing is that foie gras isn't even one of the more horrible examples of raising animals — and it's such a small sector of the food supply. But it's an easy target because it's fancy, and associated with the French, and the videos people see are lurid.
Cruelly raised foie gras — the poor animals you see in the videos in tiny pens with tubes being, as they always say, "shoved down their throats" — is bad foie gras. None of us would buy that stuff. That's not what we want, and that's not what D'Artagnan sells. In proper foie gras farming, the same feeder tends the duck every day, and more often than not, it's the duck who approaches the feeder. They have room to run around, to live a good, natural life — even a pampered one — compared with the horrifying and vastly more widespread practice of raising battery chickens.
Ruhlman: Most Americans seem only to hear about foie gras bans relative to the so-called inhumanity of their force feeding. Just a little investigation reveals the fact that these ducks have to be super healthy to support all the weight they gain. It's also been widely reported that they have no gag reflex and their throats are naturally tough due to the way they eat in nature. And accounts by the journalists who've had unrestricted visits to these farms — like Mark Caro of the Chicago Tribune and Lawrence Downes at the New York Times, for example — all suggest these ducks are far from inhumanely treated. The opposite in fact.
Bourdain: They live much better lives than any chicken that's been sold by the colonel, that's for sure. And really these ducks aren’t doing anything that a porn star doesn’t do on a regular basis.
Ruhlman: Funny. But we are in agreement. In my opinion, the four farms that grow ducks for foie gras in this country — especially the largest ones, in New York and California — they ought to be made examples of by our legislators, not as places of animal torture, but rather as models of humane farming. Unlike factory hogs, which have their tails painfully cut off and never see the light of day before winding up as cheap grocery store pork, the billions of chickens that live packed wing to wing and live in their own ammonia-reeking waste, or the feed-lot antibiotic-laced beef — if I had to come back today as an American farm animal destined for the dinner table, I'd choose to be a Moulard duck raised for my fat liver in a heartbeat.
Bourdain: Yes, it seems to me that the activists for whom the suffering of animals is unbearable, their lobbying against foie gras is not just bad time management, it's cynical time management.
Billions of chickens, hogs and beef are being harmed — that's carnage on a far vaster scale — but big agribusiness is a difficult and powerful target. They don't get much bang for their buck, from a political standpoint. It's much easier to go for the small artisanal farmer with little resources and no lobbying group in D.C.
And as an aside, as a reader of the news, I have to say it disturbs me that while people are being force-fed in Guantánamo Bay, politicians are wasting an hour or a minute complaining about poor ducks. Hell, Whole Foods is worrying about freaking lobsters and mollusks.
Ruhlman: Yes, I did hear that the conditions the oysters used to live in at Whole Foods were just deplorable. But now they each have their own personal trainer.
Look, if you don't want to patronize a business that serves foie gras, don't go there. Running full-page ads telling people how evil you think it is — that's also a legitimate enterprise, in my view, and one that's been effective in the case of anti-fur activism. But particularly as I travel so much and have come to know so many other cultures older than ours — to criminalize ways of eating, to suggest that we've all been wrong since Roman times, well, that kind of interference scares me. It's like an American tourist traveling around the world stopping over in different countries, and saying, "This is wrong and you should stop that — because me and my privileged, well-fed, white friends in our comfortable shoes think so." I respect people's decisions. You don't want to eat foie gras? Don't eat it.
Thanks to Potato Non Grata for the link.