“Banning Foie Gras Is Easier than Going After the Poultry Industry”

In 2005, Chicago Tribune reporter Mark Caro didn’t know a thing about foie gras. He then spent five years interviewing producers in the U.S. and in France as well as animal rights advocates, and published a book on the topic, The Foie Gras Wars. Ten years after the book’s release and in light of the ban recently introduced by the State of California, Caro spoke to us about his investigation and how foie gras became the French delicacy to hate.

France-Amérique: You spent five years researching your book. How did you begin such a long investigation?

Mark Caro: I had tried foie gras before and I thought it was delicious, but I didn’t know about the controversy around it. So when I heard that one of the most famous chefs in Chicago, Charlie Trotter, had stopped serving foie gras in March 2005, I was intrigued. I interviewed chefs in the city, producers in New York and California, as well as the founder of Farm Sanctuary, the animal rights organization that was leading the protests at the time. I also travelled to France and visited seven foie gras farms in the Southwest and in Alsace. I wanted to know whether I should feel good or bad about eating foie gras.

Your first article about foie gras, in 2005, ultimately led to the ban of the product in Chicago. What was the climate back then?

It began as a war between chefs. Celebrities then joined the debate. TV actresses Melissa Rivers (Beverly Hills, 90210) and Bea Arthur (The Golden Girls) testified how mean fois gras was to the ducks. Loretta Swit (M*A*S*H) even compared the force-feeding of the ducks to the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. An alderman then moved to ban foie gras in Chicago. The ban was in effect between 2006 and 2008. But the people who voted on the ban didn’t know much about the issue, whether they were for or against it. They were just following the political trend. The question of foie gras is more complex than that. That’s what I show in the book.

What did you find out while researching your book?

I found that the treatment of the animals was more humane and more transparent at Hudson Valley Foie Gras, where they’re using an artisanal approach to feeding the ducks, than at any other large-scale poultry farm. A corporation like Tyson doesn’t even allow journalists to visit its farms. From what I witnessed, the ducks were not in pain. The animal rights activists picked the easy option of anthropomorphizing the ducks. Of course, I would gag if I had a tube stuffed down my throat, but ducks don’t have a gag reflex and are able to swallow whole fish.

Do you think foie gras producers are treated unfairly?

The farmers feel like they’re being picked on. Foie gras is a very easy thing to attack: It’s French, it’s duck (which people love), it’s fattened liver, and making it looks gross. It’s easier to go after foie gras than after the poultry or the pork industry. We’re banning foie gras, but we’re okay with the horrible conditions in which chickens are raised. Over nine billion chickens are slaughtered in the U.S. every year compared with 31 million ducks. Is foie gras really the worst?

Has your opinion of foie gras changed in the course of researching and writing the book?

I still eat foie gras, but I do pay more attention to where my food is coming from and I make a point of buying eggs and bacon at the farmers’ market. The more you support small farmers, the more you’re supporting a system that treats the animals better. But at the end of the day, it always comes down to a personal choice: what is okay to eat and what isn’t?

The Foie Gras Wars:How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World’s Fiercest Food Fight
by Mark Caro, Simon & Schuster, 2009.