Foie gras or no foie gras?
Foie gras: delicious or cruel? The fatty liver, created by force-feeding ducks and geese, inspires the palates of gourmands and the anger of animal activists. Chicago Tribune reporter Mark Caro explores the subject in his new book, "The Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World's Fiercest Food Fight." We spoke with him recently about appetite, ethics, and the intersection of the two.
Q. What are the basics of the argument over foie gras, and why did it capture your interest?
A. One side says we should be more mindful of how we treat animals: When a liver balloons to 10 times its normal size, you have to question it. The other side says, look, we produce 9 billion chickens and very few foie gras ducks. The foie gras duck is free range for weeks, then undergoes a period of force feeding. It lives twice as long as a duck you'd find in Chinatown. The foie gras people felt they were being picked on because their product is French and expensive. What got me was that as I was listening to the sides of the argument, both in their own way made perfect sense. As someone who tries to navigate some sort of ethical path while continuing to eat meat, it challenged the way I thought.
Q. You spoke with animal expert Temple Grandin, who said the clearest way to measure cruelty was to see whether the ducks actively avoided their feeders. After going to farms and exploring the research, do you think foie gras is cruel to animals?
A. It's tricky. Some studies say the birds don't register stress. Others say the science just isn't there yet, and with an organ 10 times its usual size you're going to be uncomfortable. Avoidance is hard to measure. Ducks do not like being grabbed. When the feeder goes into the pen, the ducks do move away. It's not the fabled thing some people say, where they run to the tube and open their beaks. They're not trying desperately to get away either. It's hard to interpret. People love ducks, and when you put a tube down their throats, people anthropomorphize. They imagine themselves gagging even though ducks don't have gag reflexes. You're told not to project human interpretations onto waterfowl, but you process as a human. You can't flip the switch.
Q. So what do you think? Should we eat foie gras or no?
A. You have to go with your conscience, what your conscience allows. I haven't had a Big Mac in decades, and I don't eat veal. But if I'm at a restaurant that supports small farms, almost anything you get there is going to be more ethical. It's always a matter of achieving balance.