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The Foie Gras Follies

The Tribune editorial page today joined the lazy media chorus Thursday chiding the Chicago City Council for its so-called meddling ways, including its ban on foie gras.

But in April 2005, the editorial page was singing a different tune. Back then, in response to Charlie Trotter's declaration that - after visiting foie gras production facilities - he would no longer serve the fatty liver delicacy, and following a Tribune reporter's visit to one of those facilities, the newspaper's editorial page agreed that the treatment of ducks in making foie gras was cruel and unacceptable.

Here is that editorial:

"Just what Chicago needed: a good old-fashioned food fight by celebrity chefs.

"When Charlie Trotter and Rick Tramonto got into a war of words and menus over whether to serve or not serve foie gras, the enlarged fatty liver of a duck or goose, the squabble lit a match under the Chicago restaurant scene. Finally, a couple of chefs put down their recipes and wielded their opinions - and egos - like paring knives.

"To review: Trotter said he stopped serving foie gras at his North Side restaurant because he wasn't happy with how ducks were fattened up in the final stages before slaughter, force-fed with grain. Tramonto of the restaurant Tru implied that Trotter's stance was hypocritical and noted, 'Either you eat animals or you don't eat animals.'

"Trotter retorted that Tramonto was 'not the smartest guy on the block,' and joked, 'Maybe we ought to have Rick's liver for a little treat. It's certainly fat enough.'

"Tramonto countered, 'Charlie's in my prayers.'

"So is this much ado about fancy liver?

"Well, there really is a deeper meaning to this story and it's all about the treatment of animals, especially animals destined for the dinner plate. In September, California banned, effective in 2012, the force-feeding of ducks and geese as well as the sale of foie gras from birds that have been force-fed. A similar bill has been introduced in the Illinois General Assembly, even though no one operates a foie gras processor in the state. The bill, introduced by state Sen. Kay Wojcik (R-Schaumburg), would shut the state from processors who might be looking to operate here.

"The real nub of the foie gras debate was contained in Tribune reporter Mark Caro's story about the food fight. Caro described the fattening period, in which 'a tube is inserted down the duck's hard esophagus, and a corn meal is released for a couple of seconds, two or three times a day. Foie gras producers note that ducks lack gag reflexes and that waterfowl are designed to digest large portions of food, such as whole fish.'

"The way food gets from field to table often makes for uncomfortable reading, especially in a modern society in which most people have little contact with farms and slaughterhouses. But inhumane treatment of animals should be unacceptable in America. And this does sound inhumane.

"To many palates, foie gras may be delicious. But the way it is produced still turns the stomach."

Trotter's Tale
"Famed Chicago chef Charlie Trotter is no one's idea of an animal - rights activist," the Tribune wrote in a feature story in 2005. "He has devised mouth-watering preparations featuring just about every creature deemed fit for human consumption, and his 2001 book Charlie Trotter's Meat & Game includes 15 recipes that use foie gras, the enlarged fatty liver of a duck or goose.

"But Trotter had a change of heart about foie gras and has quit serving it at his eponymous North Side restaurant. The act has placed him at the center of a fiery fray that has animal-rights groups aligning with Republican lawmakers, foie gras bans being effected in California and, perhaps, Illinois and Chicago's top chefs engaging in an earth-scorching war of words.

"At the debate's center is the welfare of the duck, which, like all animals that wind up in people's tummies, meets an untimely end. What's at issue is the period leading up to the slaughter: Foie gras, said to have its origins in Egypt 5,000 years ago, is created by force-feeding the birds with grain, thus causing their livers - and the rest of them - to grow dramatically.

"Trotter said he became uncomfortable with serving the delicacy after visiting three foie gras farms (he refused to identify them) and concluding that the ducks were suffering as they were kept in small cages and fed grains through tubes inserted down their esophagi.

"'I just said, 'Enough is enough here. I can't really justify this,' Trotter said. 'What I have seen, it's just inappropriate. There are too many great things to eat out there that I don't believe that any animal would have to go through that for our benefit.'

"Trotter said he stopped including foie gras on his menus about three years ago but only is talking about the decision now."

What He Saw
Later in 2005, Tribune reporter Mark Caro visited a foie gras farm. Here is an excerpt from his report.

"Although Trotter took years to quit serving the dish after his initial visits to foie gras farms, he contends that the basic answers should be self-evident to anyone who actually observes the process . . .

"The two barns' feeding machines differ slightly as well, but the basic principle is the same: sticking a copper tube down a duck's esophagus and filling it to the brim with corn. The feedings take place twice a day, with three workers in each barn taking charge of the gavage.

"On this late morning, [worker Jorge] Vargas is still working his way through the Artisan ducks. He steps from one pen into another and sits on his crate, the copper tube suspended like an oversize dentist's drill. The ducks huddle in a corner.

"'They know what's going to happen, and they don't like to be grabbed,'" [production manager Eric] Delmas says.

"Vargas takes the first one by the neck, points the beak straight up in the air and drops the copper tube down, down, down the duck's throat. The machine, driven by hydraulic pressure, whizzes and spits 400 to 450 grams of feed into the duck's esophagus.

"Vargas hoists the copper tube and places the duck to his left, his body separating it from those still to be fed. This duck flaps its wings and looks around.

"'You can feel the corn,' Delmas says, placing his fingers at the base of the duck's bulging throat. 'He is full here' - he moves his fingers up to the chin - 'to here.'

These ducks are about nine days into the gavage. Deeper into the barn reside ducks just a day or two from processing. A few have grown so unsteady that they fall over as they try to walk.

"'He is weak, and he is going to go into processing tomorrow,' Delmas says of one.

"Some also are breathing heavily.

"'They are panting," Delmas says. 'They're like dogs.'

"'The panting is a thermal regulation mechanism,' Gonzalez says. 'They are so fat, so they are hot.'

"The ducks are processed - i.e., slaughtered - when they have reached their maximum weight, usually about 15 pounds. Gonzalez did himself some public-relations damage two years ago when a local TV interviewer asked him what would happen to the ducks if the force- feeding continued indefinitely.

"He replied, 'Obviously they will die.'

"Gonzalez complains that his comment was intercut with an animal- rights group's 'horror' footage of distressed foie gras ducks. Still, the farmers do have to stop filling those esophagi. 'At one time they are going to stop digesting,' Delmas says, 'so there is no point.'

"By the time the ducks are killed, their livers have ballooned to an average of 1 1/2 pounds - or, Gonzalez says, between eight and 10 times their normal size. Last year Sonoma Foie Gras processed 80,000 ducks, and despite the controversy Gonzalez expects this year's total to rise to 90,000 thanks to the dish's increased popularity.

Foie Film
When the Chicago City Council was considering the foie gras ban, they watched a video of ducks being force-fed to produce foie gras. I don't know if it was the same video that Caro wrote about in conjunction with his foie gras farm report, but here is his report on it.

"One key weapon in the animal rights campaign against foie gras is a video shot by the San Diego-based Animal Protection and Rescue League at Sonoma Foie Gras. Taped on the sly by group members who sneaked onto the farm after dark about 12 times, the footage shows barrels full of dead ducks plus live ducks that are hobbling, struggling and in one case bleeding from the rear end while a rat nibbles away.

"'We wanted to document the animal cruelty that goes into the foie gras product,' League co-director Bryan Pease says.

"Sonoma owner Guillermo Gonzalez complains that this 'horror video' just crams together disturbing but inevitable farm images, such as lame or dead animals. He adds, 'I personally have never seen a duck bleeding from the rear. . . . I very seriously believe - I'm almost convinced - that this was staged.'

"The notion incenses Pease.

"'How would that even work?' he asks. 'You stick something on the back of the duck, and then we brought the rat, too, and the rat is just going to go and eat the wounds of the duck?'

"Gonzalez says: 'It's very easy for someone in the middle of the night to put some chicken wire around the pen, to put some substance in the rear of the duck that may be attractive for a rat to come and nibble.'

"Back to Pease: 'Guillermo Gonzalez's accusation about us staging that footage is one of the craziest, stupidest things I've ever heard this psychotic animal torturer to ever say. It comes down to who are you going to believe, the guy who's force-feeding the ducks or the people who are volunteering their time to put an end to it?'"

Daley Box Office
Has the mayor seen the video shown to the City Council? Has he studied the issue? It's possible one could do so and still oppose the foie gras ban. But there is no indication the mayor knows anything about the matter, and he certainly hasn't engaged in a rational discussion of it. Does the mayor simply believe that the treatment of ducks in making foie gras does not constitute cruelty? If so, why doesn't he make that argument? Or is he strictly arguing that the City Council has overstepped its jurisdiction?

I mean, I hate this meddlin' Chicago nanny city, too. Cracking down on neighborhood taverns, power sweeping downtown sidewalks, shutting down newsstands and putting pushcarts out of business, forcing wrought-iron fences on business owners . . . oh, wait, those are all campaigns of Mayor Richard M. Daley. I guess it's different when Daddy Mayor intrudes in our lives, as opposed to his unruly children on the City Council.

Lobster Tales
What if we boiled dogs alive and served them up in our fine culinary establishments? What if we force-fed cats until their organs burst so rich people could eat their engorged livers? Why do we outlaw cockfighting? Why can't people order raw meat in a restaurant if they want? Why all this intrusion?

Chicken Little
Do you suppose whoever does the Daleys' grocery shopping ever buys free-range chickens?

Nations Gone Wild
Denmark and Germany are among the nations that have banned foie gras. But those countries are just silly. They should just manage themselves. We have more activity going on in one church than they have in their whole governments.

Rich Man's Burden
In March, Miyun Park of the Humane Society wrote the following letter to the Tribune.

"This is regarding 'The ideal meal; Our foodies reveal their own perfect, seven-course fantasy menus' (At Play, March 9), by Phil Vettel, Tribune restaurant critic, and Emily Nunn and Monica Eng, Tribune staff reporters.

"How disappointing to read that 'the ideal meal' of the Tribune's restaurant critic and staff writers includes foie gras, a product so notorious for its cruel abuses of ducks and geese that some countries have banned its production due to animal-welfare concerns.

"French for 'fatty liver,' foie gras is made from the diseased livers of ducks and geese force-fed unnatural amounts of food through a pipe thrust down their throats, directly into their gullets. This harrowing process, coupled with the grossly unhealthful amount of food they're forced to ingest, causes severe trauma, including suffocation on regurgitated food, lameness, organ rupture and even death.

"Surely anyone would agree that the cruelty inherent in the production of this so-called 'delicacy' is too much for any compassionate individual to swallow."

See also The [Foie Gras & Fundraising] Papers.


Posted on August 25, 2006

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BOOKS - All About Poop.


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