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    A Foie Gras Primer – A Repost

    Yeah, yeah, I’m going outside of the my current rules for the site, and I’m talking about food politics.  The Foie Gras wars have heated up again, with California banning the liver, and various food-types up in arms about it. I am against the ban, for many reasons, but it’s better to inform than complain, a motto I forgot on Tuesday, when I tweeted an overtly political sentiment, one whose nuances could not be explained in less than 140 characters. Hence, this post/re-post.

    For those new to the debate, I offer up a bit of a primer, one that I published back in 2010 when Seattle was knee deep in this mud. My point here is to give those unfamiliar with the debate a starting point, and then they can come to their own conclusion.

    That being said, if you want to know more of my opinion, the search function is a perfect place to start. If not, read the primer below.

    Foie Gras Primer

    What is Foie Gras? Foie Gras is a food product made of the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened. Source.

    Specially Fattened? What does that mean? It means that the ducks and geese are feed extensively, sometimes through the use of a process called gavage. Gavage, in foie gras production, is the process in which corn is force-fed to farm-raised ducks through a funnel down their throats. Source.

    Force-fed? That sounds horrible! Well, if you’re a human, it would be. But ducks and geese have a different anatomy than humans. Source.

    Different? How? Well for one, they can store up to half their body weight in a diverticulum of their esophagus. This is a common trait to all birds.Source

    But a tube is stuck down their throat! Not really. According the Hudson Valley, a maker of foie gras, the tube is put immediately in front of the duck or goose’s esophagus, but not into it. Source.

    What about the enlarged liver? Doesn’t that cause suffering? Undeniably. It causes hepatic steatosis, which, if left untended, causes suffering in the duck and will force it to collapse. Source.

    So the animal rights folks have a point? Yes and no. To produced good foie gras, a duck or goose should be killed before stress influences the taste of the liver. So the question becomes “at what point should the birds be killed”. As the source reports, there is a threshold that the bird would feel stress from the enlarged liver. If the bird is killed before that threshold is met, there is no suffering. Source.

    Additionally, one has to take into account that all animal livestock ultimately endures at least one measure of violence – the slaughter of said animal. Cows, pigs, chickens all go through this in order to enter the food chain. So in essence there is at least one correlation between foie gras and your average every day daily meat source.

    So if every animal meets a cruel end, why do the animal rights folks attack foie gras? Good question, and all I can give is my opinion. I suppose if you ask an animal rights activist, they’ll say that all cruelty needs to be fought, regardless of how popular or unpopular the food product.

    But there are several aspects that make foie gras especially vulnerable to the activists protestations. 1) Production techniques are easily available to the public. Unlike chicken or pig farms, which agri-business severely restricts access to, foie gras’ gavage process can be readily found on the internet. For people unfamiliar with animal farming, the process can be a bit of a shock. However, for people familiar with the techniques used in beef, pig, or chicken farms, the way the ducks and geese are treated seem quite tame.

    2) Foie gras is not a mainstream food dish. People who don’t go to upscale restaurants on a regular basis, rarely, if ever, eat foie gras. Thus it’s hard for the regular omnivore to get too worked up about a food that they never eat.

    3) Foie gras is seen as a food of the wealthy. And who wouldn’t like to stick it to the wealthy, especially in today’s economic environment?

    So foie gras farmers are wealthy? Heh. No. Not really. In the recent case of the National Advertising Division against D’Artagnan, D’Artagnan has publically stated that they won’t fight the ruling only because they can’t afford to. Foie Gras farmers (and there are only three of them in the United States) and wholesalers are typically small businesses that lack a strong legal network that can defend them from highly motivated activist groups with strong legal council Source.

    Okay, so why should I care about a meat I never eat? I can’t tell you how to think, or what to care about. But consider this, what is the next food that could be determined to be created in a cruel manner? Veal? Chicken? Pigs? What a defeat of foie gras production means is that precedent will be set that a term with a broad definition (“Cruelty”, which as it currently stands is open for interpretation as there is no precise legal definition when it comes to food production) can be applied to other food products.

    In other words, people who know little about animal physiology can have the legal means to tell the rest of us what we can and cannot eat, based on their own morality, rather than the greater public’s.

    So we shouldn’t listen to animal rights activists? No, I think we should, with a caveat. Jonathan Golob of The Stranger has it right. We should also be listening to scientists, farmers, philosophers, and anyone else who presents a rational argument to the debate. I would posit that a belief that runs contrary to public demands and concerns requires due diligence before we make decisions based off of that belief. Forcing change through misinformation, half-truths, and propaganda runs contrary to that, and one could argue is counter-productive for the long term.

    Do you have any advice to Animal Rights Activists? Several, the first of which is that they have to recognize that meat eating will be around for quite some time. A reduction of meat eating is a good idea. A worldwide cessation of meat eating is both nonviable and unlikely. If one is to use that as a basic premise to the animal cruelty debate, then one must acknowledge that some cruelty is simply unavoidable.

    But more specifically, I would say that they should talk with foie gras producers in order to understand the entire picture, rather than looking at some video’s on Youtube to get their education. Foie gras producers are generally quite transparent in their techniques, and would likely welcome a respectful debate about the issues. Using intimidation, either through protests or via legal means, will likely force a more defensive and aggressive posture by those who have economic interests in the industry. But that’s more of a guess on my part.

    Coca-Cola and Their Obesity Response

    Riffing off of Marion Nestle’s recent post about Coca-Cola, marketing, and obesity, I think that it’s not a problem that Coca-Cola should be a participant in the conversation about the growing of America’s waistline. Hell, the more companies involved in such discussions, the better off we would all be.

    That being said, the Coca-Cola company, nor any corporation for that matter, should solely drive the discussion, at least not without chance of proper questions to be asked of them and their own presumed culpability in the matter.

    There in lies the dissonance. Companies like Coca-Cola don’t want a dialogue. It might put the company at risk, which in turn, puts their stock at risk, something that is a big no-no in the corporate world. It’s far, far better, from their point of view, to get in front of the debate, and lead it in the direction where questions surrounding their marketing, health claims, and pricing strategies simply do not get asked.

    The result of this is silliness such as Coke’s Live Positively website, designed to give the impression that they care about the obesity issue. Yet, if you look around this site, the one unequivocal answer to helping consumers reduce caloric intake, i.e. drink less soda, is not mentioned once.

    In fact, the opposite is true. Looking at their section on Active Healthy Living, Coke promotes guiding principles: Think, Drink, and Move. You’ll note that “Drink” comes before “Move”. You’ll also note that when clicking on the “Drink” link, it takes you to one of their many branding pages, where they boast of their “500 beverage brands inclusive of more than 3,500 beverages”, many of which are no where near what one would consider a healthy choice for consumption.

    I’ve said this before about McDonald’s, and it holds true for Coca-Cola: Creating an illusion that their products are healthy is a difficult one to maintain in the long run. When your primary product is sugar water, and you major goal for your sugar water is to have people consume it in excess, it’s difficult to hold the position that Coke’s interest is equitable to the interest of those trying to be healthy.

    It has to be a difficult position for Coke to be in. After all, they can’t just say that their products are little more than empty calories. They can’t imply that their beverages are little more than an affordable luxury item. But this is exactly what they are. They have the science to prove it. As do we.

    They know this. They just can’t say it. And when a company cannot be free to speak to the facts when engaging in dialogue, for fear of adversely affecting their stock prices, they become a dishonest broker of information in the national discussion.

    What? Now We Can’t Eat Rabbits?

    Executive chef Payton Curry of Caffe Boa in Tempe, Arizona had a thought: Why not serve rabbit on the menu? Little did they know that it would be a controversial move.

    Caffe Boa and Boa Bistro have touched a nerve with their plans to serve a rabbit-based menu on Easter Sunday.

    “People just don’t realize what wonderful pets rabbits are,” said Doreen O’Connell, a volunteer at Brambly Hedge Rabbit Rescue in Phoenix.

    “They’re just the sweetest pets, so good-natured and funny and loving. And like any pet owner, when you see that on a menu you think how could somebody take my sweet pet and slaughter it and eat it?”

    Oh fer cryin’ out loud. No one is taking pets into a restaurant in order to cook them. Let’s just stop this faux outrage. We’ve been eating rabbit for thousands of years now, and I don’t think it’s prudent to stop just because a handful of people have decided that bunnies are too cute to consume. Most farmers I’ve talked to refer to rabbits as pests, not pets. They’re one of the reasons that beagles and basset hounds were bred. Rabbits are little more than rats with long ears and good PR.

    At least Chef Curry has a sense of humor.

    One message left for him: “What’s next? Santa pot pie for Christmas? The idea of you serving rabbit is disgusting, absurd and in poor taste.”

    Curry commented, “We’re actually going to be serving venison on Christmas, in honor of Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer.

    (h/t to my pal Kerry)

    Let me throw out a Rhetorical Question

    If the House of Representative‘s cafeteria is good enough to remove high fructose corn syrup from the menu and to add locally grown, organic, seasonal and generally healthy food, why can’t the congressritters suggest the same for the many publics school cafeterias across America?

    …Just wondering.

    Food Safety and (the lack of) Inspections

    Nestled deep within the Washington Post was this article, about the current administrations perspective on the current problems surrounding food safety. Their response is rather stunning, but not all that surprising when you consider their track record on other issues.

    A consensus is building among government and food industry officials that the fix for the country’s import safety system is likely to require better-targeted inspections, though not necessarily more of them.

    Yesterday, Mike Leavitt, secretary of health and human services and chairman of a panel established by President Bush to study the safety of imported food, reflected that point of view when he said: “We simply cannot inspect our way to safety.” (emphasis mine)

    The best interpretation for the above is that we’re not going to see any more funding for additional inspectors out in the field.

    The article goes on to say the following:

    Instead, the import safety panel is expected to push for expanded use of technology to more quickly identify risky imports. Leavitt has supported the use of technology at the border that could read the contents of a sports drink bottle, for example, looking for potentially toxic chemicals without opening it.

    And the best interpretation for that is that some contractors are about to receive a large amount of money to develop products that…guess what…will have to be regulated. Hardware and software developed for the government does not occur in a vacuum.

    The FDA is developing a food-safety strategy to be unveiled this fall that would rely on risk-based inspection but has not asked for more resources to pay for more inspections.

    The only question here is why wasn’t the FDA already pursuing risk-based inspections?

    I will concede the fact that throwing inspectors at the problem is only a drop in the bucket. But there’s more that can be done on this side of that fence. Companies who knowingly violate regulations, or repeatedly have the same issues should be penalized. Inspectors need to have accountability in their arsenal of tools. Currently there is precious little of that.

    Also, adding more inspectors doesn’t mean that there will be a zero sum gain in findings. They will catch some issues that are not being caught now. Arguing that adding additional inspectors is a waste of time is absolutely false.

    House Subcommittee Approves Language that Prevents States from Protecting their Citizens

    Well I was going to start my vacation until this entered my inbox…

    Washington May 24, 2007 – Earlier today, the House Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry approved new language slipped into the 2007 Farm Bill that pre-empts any state prohibitions against any foods or agricultural goods that have been deregulated by the USDA. The passage appears to be aimed at several recently enacted state laws that restrict the planting of genetically engineered (GE) crops, but could also prohibit states from taking action when food contamination cases occur.

    “Given the recent spate of food scares, it’s shocking to see this attempt to derail safeguards for our food and farms,ˮ said Joseph Mendelson, Legal Director of the Center for Food Safety. “We need a Farm Bill that will promote stronger food safety standards, not one that attacks these vital state-level protections.”

    The passage approved by the House Subcommittee today states that “no State or locality shall make any law prohibiting the use in commerce of an article that the Secretary of Agriculture has inspected and passed; or determined to be of non-regulated status.ˮ

    Or to put it another way – Even though it’s been proven that the USDA’s authority to protect small farmers has been compromised, and that their track record in protecting the health of citizens and environments has been put behind the need to increase the profit of industrial-agriculture complex, we’re supposed to take the USDA’s word over that of the states who have put consumer and environmental concerns into their charter?

    Yeah, I ain’t buyin’ that at all.

    Feel free to contact the congresscritters below to let them know that until the public can trust the USDA, that it’s not a good idea to let them be the final word of food regulation.

    Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry
    Leonard L. Boswell, (D-IA) Chairman

    Jurisdiction: livestock; dairy; poultry; meat; seafood and seafood products; inspection, marketing, and promotion of such commodities; aquaculture; animal welfare; and grazing.

    • Leonard L. Boswell, (D-IA) Chairman
    • Kirsten E. Gillibrand, (D-NY)
    • Steve Kagen, (D-WI)
    • Tim Holden, (D-PA)
    • Joe Baca, (D-CA)
    • Dennis A. Cardoza, (D-CA)
    • Nick Lampson, (D-TX)
    • Joe Donnelly, (D-IN)
    • Jim Costa, (D-CA)
    • Tim Mahoney, (D-FL)
    • Robin Hayes,(R-NC) Ranking Minority Member
    • Mike Rogers, (R-AL)
    • Steve King, (R-IA)
    • Virginia Foxx, (R-NC)
    • K. Michael Conaway, (R-TX)
    • Jean Schmidt, (R-OH)
    • Adrian Smith, (R-NE)
    • Tim Walberg, (R-MI)

    FDA: The definition of Toothless

    Do you recall the Spinach-E.Coli incidents from last September? Do you remember the peanut butter recall earlier this year? The FDA remembers, because they knew that there were problems with both of these products about a year prior to their respective outbreaks.

    In late 2005, a year before a deadly outbreak of E. coli in spinach, the Food and Drug Administration sent a letter to California growers expressing its “serious concern” over ongoing outbreaks of food borne illness from that state’s lettuce and spinach crops. CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes reports.

    There had been 19 outbreaks since 1995.


    In the peanut butter case, an agency report shows that FDA inspectors checked into complaints about salmonella contamination in a ConAgra Foods factory in Georgia in 2005. But when company managers refused to provide documents the inspectors requested, the inspectors left and did not follow up.

    You’re going to hear more about the FDA today as the Democratic-controlled Congress is holding a hearing as to determine what is going wrong at the agency.

    In the interest of time, however, I can provide a brief synopsis of the problems at hand.

    1. The FDA is understaffed.
    2. The FDA is underfunded. Consider the following – For 2008. The USDA has a proposed budget of 20 Billion dollars, the FDA has a proposed budget of 1.6 billion. Yet the FDA is responsible for overseeing 80% of the food items sold in the United States.
    3. The FDA lacks any authority. The snippet above regarding ConAgra is the perfect illustration of this. When the FDA requested documentation regarding a batch of peanut butter that was destroyed, ConAgra provided…well, nothing. In response to ConAgra’s inaction, the FDA simply walked away, as there was little in the way of legal recourse available to them.

    There. I just saved you from watching C-Span for 8 hours. You can thank me later.

    Meanwhile, considering the FDA’s failing, I wonder why they are even there in the first place. If they are understaffed, underfunded, and lack any legal authority to provide even a minimal amount of food safety oversight, why have them at all? It’s more expensive in the long run to maintain a false sense of security, than it is to be realistic about the safety of our food supply.

    Of course I would love a Food agency that could provide an adequate level of oversight to the food producers and importers of this country. But with a presidential administration that sees any regulation as an abhorrence, and a overall budget that has spending out of control, there’s little chance that adequate funding will be supplied, at least in the short term.