Monday, May 21, 2012

Foie Gras, a tale of two cultures

"How can the government tell you what you can and cannot eat?" people say, with an astonished look. I explain the typical arguments about force feeding (gavage), and how people in the California government use them to justify legislating an entire business out of existence, at the same time telling restaurants they can't serve the stuff, and intruding in everyone's choice of diet.

The anti-foie gras arguments typically revolve around the alleged cruelty of the force-feeding process, mixed with general animal rights issues.

People here in France then wonder about other food-related legalities that they consider questionable. Doesn't California allow chickens to be raised where they never see the sun or breathe fresh air? They wonder how large industries can serve genetically modified food, something they feel lacks sufficient information on its long term effects on human health. They hear in the press that medicinal antibiotics can be given to beef, allegedly creating dangerously resistant bacteria - yet this practice is apparently legal.

So far, some common questions repeat. One is concerned with lawmakers wasting time on what they consider a relatively minor issue; another is about legislating away personal freedom. Then there are the inevitable questions about the faction that so adamantly opposes the sale of this product.

Where is the government that is supposed to protect us from what many feel are unsafe and unhealthy industrial practices? Instead, they're busy legislating foie gras out of existence? Why?

Why did people in the government decide to stick their legal fingers into everyone's dinner, arbitrarily snatching an ingredient off everyone's plate while leaving other arguably more questionable foods untouched? Is America a free country or not? What will they outlaw next, and with what justification?

Some hear that people selling foie gras in California allegedly receive death threats against themselves and their families. They ask how can someone who would kill another person over their diet claim moral superiority, something I certainly can't answer.

Talking with people involved with selling and producing foie gras is interesting. The industry has quality standards and regulations. As long as people make sure the certification is valid these standards will have been followed. The birds - ducks or geese - are fed a grain only diet and live outside. For most of their lives, they're not force fed. They walk, quack (or honk) and eat. After a certain age, they're force fed - not as nasty as foie gras opponents claim, since birds can supposedly breathe with a feeding tube in their throats. Likewise, the process is supposedly not painful when done correctly - although I suppose you would have to ask a duck or goose to get the final answer. They don't seem to run away after they've been through the gavage thing, so presumably they either have short memories or it's not as bad as it looks. Producers say that torturing the birds leads to inferior product, and that they want happy, fat animals to get a top quality rating.

So far, I've only talked to one purveyor here in Paris. It was a long talk, however. Along with the questions, there was a bit of attitude concerning our respective styles of government. He felt that the French government would never interfere in people's choice of diet without a very good reason (prohibiting eating endangered species, for example). Domestic ducks and geese certainly don't fall into this category.

The French know where their foe gras comes from, what the birds are fed and how they're raised, or at least can easily find answers to these questions. Can we say the same about our chicken, pork or beef?

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