I just returned from a visit with two farmers, deep in the dry, hilly Catalan country of southeast France, to talk about foie gras. André, an ecologically progressive 50 year old, works the small livestock, fruit, and vegetable farm his family has owned for generations, outside the medieval market village of Prades. Anna is the youngest partner in a 15-year old poultry farm on leased public land tucked off a dirt road behind the hamlet of Oms, which she works with her mother and two additional partners. Free range geese, ducks, chickens, sheep and goats are part of the tradition of mixed farm here, yielding that great variety of quirky, individual, uber-local artisan items you find at little stands in village markets. Both farms are biologique (organic), both farmers talk passionately about sustaining local agriculture, small farms, and regional food. Both raise geese and ducks and produce foie gras on their farms.
Talking with them, and seeing their operations on the day the California foie gras ban went into effect, I had to ask: Shouldn't small-farm, artisan foie gras be granted the same 'sustainability' or 'artisan pass' given to other animal products by eco-conscious Americans? Even cage-free and organic egg production may entail questionable quality-of-life practices, enclosing hens in crowded, dark conditions, destroying millions of male chicks. Organic beef calves may be stuffed with corn in their last months, unhealthy for them, and for those who eat their meat. The "grass fed", "free range", "non GMO" and "sustainably farmed" labels have allowed many a vegetarian to enjoy a burger or roast chicken, despite the ambiguity of detail in what actually may be going on from breeding, to birthing, to rearing, to grill. Why shouldn't small-farm foie gras enjoy the same latitude? And does it matter if foie gras production is considered part of a cultural practice -- like kosher or halal slaughter by bleeding, without stunning the animal first?
André knew about the California ban. "I would bet most of the foie gras in California is corporate farm produced," André said. "It should be banned. Their practices are cruel. But this?" He waved toward a field of ducks grazing the tops off tall grass. "That's crazy. This is completely different." Andre is no novice at integrated, sustainable farming. Solar hot water and electric panels are part of the farmscape, along with composting and graywater recycling. His black-eyed, near-wild Gascon cattle range freely year round; calves stay with their mothers until taken to market. All his fruits and vegetables are certified organic, a label entailing a painstaking process of inspections and documentation. He's angry about the impact of corporate agriculture on health, quality of life, and the environment, and explained bitterly how Kellogg moved in with false information to deliberately change French breakfast habits -- for the worse. He is deeply philosophically attuned to protecting animal welfare, but sees no contradiction in having ducks and farm-made duck products, including foie gras, as part of his revenue stream.
At Le Canard Bien Elévé (a bit of a pun, meaning the well-raised or well-bred duck), Anna takes visitors around the farm each weekend for a look at the ducks, geese, and chickens at the base of their branded line of terrines, patés, rillettes, foie gras, magret and confit de canard. The partners handle it all, from raising the chicks, to slaughter, to creating recipes, and packaging products in their tiny, but fully inspected and certified, facility. Three times a week they haul crates and cold-chests of jars and vacuum packs to local markets, and every month or so set up at regional fairs. They sell at cooperative artisan food shops around the region, and sell whole poultry directly to individuals on order. In the summer, they offer picnics on the farm, serving only their farm-grown products -- and neighbors' wines -- at a few colorful long tables under a tent. It's about as far from mass corporate agriculture as you can get.
Scrambling up the hillside along a rocky path behind the processing building, Anna stops at a rolling field of wide-bladed grass. Tall trees and and flowering shrubs edge one side, an open-ended hoop shelter is off on the other side, and a flock of about 200 8-week old ducklings clusters in the shade. In a few weeks, Anna will start 13 days or so of gavage, the force feeding at the heart of the foie gras debate. Descriptions of commercial foie gras production are full of miserable details: pneumatic force feeding with machines and metal pipes, animals packed in tiny, filthy cages, and barrels full of dead ducks. If any of these happened at Bien Elévé, Anna would be out of business. She prides herself on her gentle handling of each duck, holding it carefully, guiding in a flexible rubber feeding tube for the organic, non-GMO, French-only corn, then placing the duck back in the clean pen.
They don't run away before she reaches for them; they don't keel over after their induced over-feeding; they are not diseased. "A stressed duck won't produce a high quality liver," she explained. "When we slaughter and first look at the liver, that's when I know if I've done a good job. And I can't afford to lose ducks."
Ducks raised for foie gras yield other products important to small farm income. André and Anna both sell magret de canard, the tender, delicately rosy duck breast found on the menu of many fine restaurants who cannot, now, serve foie gras. Magret comes from fattened ducks. If it doesn't, it's 'filet,' not 'magret.' Confit de canard, too, is made from foie gras ducks. Gavage results in more than a fatty liver, and not all gavages are equal. Either all the products should be banned, or controls should be addressing processes, not products. Which brings us to the artisan pass.
Bias alert: I'm a Cornell aggie, animal science major, author of Raising Your Own Livestock, and onetime small-scale livestock producer who served two named animals -- Roger and Wilbur -- at a major family dinner. I'm also a vegetarian, and something of a green. For the last 20 years, my eco-vegtarian ways have meant avoiding the US meat industry, bypassing corporate agriculture whenever I can, growing a vegetable garden, treating my laying hens well, driving minimally, recycling water, etc., etc. I'm not, however, morally opposed to killing and eating sentient beings. And yes, I tasted -- and very much enjoyed -- the buttery foie gras, the seared outside, red-inside magret, and Banyuls-laced patés from André and Anna's farms.
Livestock industries handle animals as any massive factory operation handles parts, cutting costs as much as possible to maximize profit. In the process, environments are destroyed, nonrenewable resources are depleted, we eat badly. Our moral fabric - which includes senses of empathy, of caring about pain and suffering - frays. We try to regulate down the worst of the practices, environmental and inhumane, to reduce the damage. But little would be accomplished if we banned steak, chicken wings, scrambled eggs, or pork chops. Focus on one product, rather than on a practice, does not address the question of how we are to develop food systems that are simultaneously socially, culturally, environmentally, and economically ethical and equitable. Anna and Andre are working their farms, buying and selling with their neighbors, contributing to and supporting regional, small scale agriculture. They're careful and caring with their livestock, as they are with their land. The food they produce carries minimal food miles; it's healthy for people and planet.
Although I'd put it low on the list, after controlling the high-volume atrocities of all factory farming, go after large scale, mass gavage, and give small-farm artisan foie gras a pass.