The Foie Gras Industry in New York
For most of us, foie gras is something that we associate with elegant dining but rarely, if ever, sample ourselves. This “delicacy” is nothing more than the diseased livers extracted from suffering ducks who have been stuffed with an artificially rich diet in greater amounts than they could ever consume on their own. There are only three producers in the United States: one in California and two in upstate New York. NYSHA has initiated efforts to educate the public to eschew this product and has attempted to challenge the industry on the basis of animal welfare infractions, using the State´s anti-cruelty laws.
For those unfamiliar with foie gras (pronounced “fwah grah” and French for “fatty liver”), this “delicacy” is nothing more than the diseased livers extracted from suffering ducks who have been stuffed with an artificially rich diet in greater amounts than they could ever consume on their own. Ducks or geese (ducks only in the USA) are forced fed for a period of 2 to 4 weeks to produce a liver that is so infiltrated with fat as to be grossly distended and is in failure. Although the manufacturers claim that this medical condition (hepatic lipidosis) is reversible and not painful, the evidence shows disturbing examples of crippled and gasping birds experiencing a slow and painful deterioration. The largest American producer is Hudson Valley Foie Gras, located in the Catskill region in Ferndale, NY. NYSHA´s Dr. Holly Cheever has been invited to visit this plant on three occasions, first as an expert witness during an investigation in 1991 by the Sullivan Country District Attorney, then as an invited guest in 1997 during a promotional tour offered to Whole Foods, Inc., and finally as a guest accompanying the New York State Veterinary Medical Society´s Executive Board in 2005.
The life cycle of a foie gras duck is short and agonizing in the final weeks. Foie gras comes from the livers of Moulard ducks, a hybrid species created from artificial insemination using Pekins and Muscovies. The ducklings are raised in large group pens until the age of 10 to 11 weeks, and then are grouped into forced feeding pens for the final four weeks of their lives. Each day, they are forcibly restrained three times while a thick inflexible metal or plastic tube is inserted into their throats and a large mass of dried food is administered deep into their esophagus by either a gravity or hydraulic system. As the ducks´ portions increase during their four weeks on the line, their livers expand due to fatty infiltration until they are 10 to 12 times normal size. The livers are clinically in failure at the time of slaughter at 14 weeks of age, and yet are valued between $48 to $70 each. At those prices, any bird that can still be fed, no matter how diseased or injured, will be fed its full 4 weeks if it does not expire first.
By their last week, the birds have become so ill that their physical condition and degree of suffering arguably place them in violation of the State´s anti-cruelty laws. Their huge livers cause their abdomens to become bloated and heavy, resulting in their inability to walk. Pathetically, they drag themselves on their tattered and filthy wings while panting in short, shallow breaths since their air sacs are compressed by liver expansion. The most metabolically stressed show hepatic encephalopathy, i.e., the psychotic behavior induced when severe liver disease destroys brain function. In addition, many ducks are handled so roughly that they sustain limb fractures, ruptured livers, and lacerated esophagi. Many are infected with bacterial and fungal diseases. The owner of Californias producer, Sonoma Foie Gras, stated in a 2004 television interview that the reason for limiting force feeding to 3-4 weeks is that ducks would become too ill and die soon after, if not slaughtered by then.
With evidence this distressing, it seems incomprehensible that the industry can continue to create diseased organs inside suffering animals for such a small niche market, representing a minuscule fraction of New York´s agricultural economy. Quite simply, foie gras producers enhance their image by claiming that the process mimics natural conditions and by carefully restricting what is shown to the public. Dr. Cheever has witnessed very different standards of care in her three inspections over the past 15 years: the first in 1991, in which she accompanied NYSHA´s Dr. Tatty Hodge and the NYS Police, revealed shocking conditions, some of which still appear on foie gras websites today. The second visit in 1997 with Whole Foods, Inc.´s representatives was orchestrated by the plant owners to assuage their welfare concerns; however, Whole Foods called this industry “tragic,” and promised that they would never carry any such product in their inventory.
For the final inspection, this past November, having learned since 1997 what the public finds disturbing, the plant owners removed ducks who were in the later stages of the process, so that the many visitors whom they have invited in the past year-veterinarians from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and New York State Veterinary Medical Society (NYSVMS), restaurateurs, and legislators-do not see the diseased birds in the last third of their force feeding.
As the public has become aware of this “delicacy” and its production, state and municipal laws and ordinances have been drafted to outlaw the sale and production of foie gras. Responding to successful lobbying efforts by a consortium of state and national animal advocacy groups, Governor Schwarzenegger signed a bill into law in 2004 prohibiting the sale and production of this item after 2012 in California. Bills have been attempted in Illinois, Oregon, Massachusetts, and New York as well. The City of Chicago is on the verge of voting for a ban on the sale of foie gras within city limits, necessitating NYSHA´s support in testifying before press conferences and the Chicago City Council on behalf of this ordinance.
Passing this legislation requires the support of the veterinary profession, so the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights (AVAR) will continue their campaign to persuade the American Veterinary Medical Association to adopt a position of censure for foie gras production due to welfare concerns. Unfortunately, the New York State Veterinary Medical Society supports the industry at this time and therefore strongly influences the national debate, but NYSHA and AVAR hope to encourage them to adopt an opposing position.
What you can do:
- Please contact your state senator and representative to support A.7876/S.2083, prohibiting force feeding for foie gras production.
- In addition, we encourage NYSHA members to write to the NYSVMS and send copies to the AVMA and to request them-politely-to support the resolution against foie gras manufacture due to welfare concerns for the ducks. Ask them also to contact their member veterinarians to do likewise.
- Write: Dr. Wayne Warriner, President, NYSVMS, PO Box 7, Avon, NY 14414
- Please send copies of your letters to the following:
- Dr. Frederick B. Tierney, AVMA delegate, 310 East 65th Street, New York, NY 10021
- Dr. Henry Childers, President AVMA, 1931 North Meacham Road, Suite 100, Schaumburg, IL 60173 We would appreciate a copy: NYSHA, PO Box 3068, Kingston, NY 12402
- Finally, to learn more about foie gras production, please visit the following websites:
New York State Humane Association Humane Review, Vol.XIX, No.3, Winter 2005.