The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Activists Introduce Legislation to Curb Inhumane Farming Methods

by Kari Lydersen

Practices employed by agribusinesses to convert living animals into tender delicacies are coming under fire in a number of states as rights activists move to expand cruelty prohibitions and spread awareness.

Apr. 5, 2005 – Many people eating the gourmet delicacy known as "foie gras" do not know how it is produced. They might not even know the translation from the French: "fatty liver."

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An aggressive campaign by animal rights groups aims to tell consumers exactly how the duck and goose livers become so tender and flavorful: by force-feeding cornmeal through a hard tube shoved down the bird’s esophagus, causing its liver to bloat up to ten times its normal size.

Groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Farm Sanctuary, an organization that rescues and provides refuge to animals discarded by the agribusiness industry, have led the charge against what they see as exceptionally vile animal mistreatment. In response to the campaign, a number of high-profile institutions and some celebrity chefs have stopped serving foie gras.

Foie gras production was banned in California, effective 2012, by state legislation signed in September, and bills are now pending or proposed in Massachusetts, New York, Illinois and Oregon to ban its production. The Massachusetts and Illinois bills also ban the importation or sale of the fatty livers in the state; the Oregon and New York bills are still in development.

"Once people find out just how cruel foie gras production is, they’ll refuse to purchase it or eat it," said Cem Akin, research associate at PETA, which started pressuring institutions to remove foie gras from their menus in 1992 and won such converts as the Boston Symphony and Williams-Sonoma, the specialty food and cookware supplier.

Both Massachusetts bills are largely meant to have symbolic and preventive effects rather produce immediate results since there is currently no veal or foie gras production in the state.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts legislators have introduced another bill that would outlaw two other controversial farming techniques: the use of veal crates for calves and gestation crates for pigs. In both cases the crates prevent the animal from moving freely, grooming, turning around or even lying down comfortably. With calves the confinement crates are used -- along with a low-fiber, low-iron liquid diet that can induce anemia -- to create the fatty, pale meat popularly known as veal. Pig gestation crates are used to confine pregnant sows in continual cycles of gestation, turning them into "piglet making machines" in the words of animal rights activists, to be slaughtered once their reproductive usefulness is expended.

Both Massachusetts bills are largely meant to have symbolic and preventive effects rather produce immediate results since there is currently no veal or foie gras production in the state.

There are only two major foie gras producers in the country, Sonoma Foie Gras in California and Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York. Animal rights activists say the foie gras bills aim to prevent new foie gras outfits from setting up, and to undermine support for French and Canadian foie gras companies who export the product to the United States.

"We want to set the standard that this is not an acceptable practice and we wouldn’t condone it on any farm," said Tim O’Neill, budget and policy director for State Senator Susan Fargo, who sponsored the Massachusetts foie gras bill and also signed the proposed anti-confinement bill. "And we want to make sure no businesses are procuring or selling foie gras produced through inhumane methods."

In the US, both opponents and supporters of the Massachusetts anti-foie gras and anti-confinement bills basically see them as wedge issues, which could open the door for more animal rights-related legislation in other states and perhaps more importantly, increased awareness of animal rights in general.

Veal and foie gras producers say animal rights groups like Farm Sanctuary are misrepresenting industries.

Steve Kraut, co-executive director of the American Veal Association and an Illinois-based, second-generation veal producer, said he thinks animal rights groups are inaccurately portraying veal production as inhumane in order to create more general opposition to the meat industry. "My entire livelihood is dependent on the well-being and best interest of my calves," he said. "If I do anything that’s not in their best interest, that will hurt me. People who don’t understand our industry are trying to apply these standards to it. You need to ask the folks who tend their animals all day, not the folks who don’t think there’s a place in society for animal agriculture. We need these decisions made by veterinarians, not vegetarians."

Kraut said confinement in individual units is the healthiest situation for the calves."That allows each calf to be cared for and fed individually," he said. "It protects them more from sickness. Our research has indicated this is a stress-free environment. You’ll have a difficult time finding anywhere in animal agriculture where animals are treated with the kind of consideration veal calves get."

To back up such claims, Kraut pointed to a study produced by an industry researcher at Rutgers University last year in response to proposed anti-confinement legislation introduced there. But The NewStandard has reviewed that report and found it was based mostly on selective citations of other industry research and even inaccurately portrayed the proposed legislation it purported to refute.

Akin of PETA counters industry arguments, suggesting that all animals - like humans - have immune systems for the purpose of fighting disease, and if they are allowed to nurse and normally associate with other animals in a relatively comfortable, stress-free setting, their immune system will develop normally. He notes that isolating calves and feeding them formula rather than letting them nurse inhibits their immune system development.

Animal rights groups also object to the small size of veal and gestation crates, arguing that animals would never choose to live in an enclosure so small as to prohibit them from so much as turning around.

Kraut’s industry association strongly opposed anti-veal legislation that failed to pass in New Jersey, Illinois and California, and also opposes the Massachusetts bill. He noted that although there is no veal production in Massachusetts, the bill could affect the state’s large dairy industry.

"The veal industry, through purchasing calves and milk products, provides $300 million annually to the dairy industry," he said, referring to nationwide production. "This bill would not only impact veal; it would have a chilling effect on the dairy industry."

Akin said opponents of veal should also learn about how it is linked to the dairy industry, against which many animal rights groups also level numerous complaints.

"We often say there’s a little chunk of veal in every glass of milk," Akin said. "The veal and dairy industries are almost one and the same. Most veal are the male calves of dairy cows. It’s a good way for the dairy farmer to get rid of them and make a little money."

Back in New York State, the foie gras prohibition bill would directly affect Hudson Valley Foie Gras, which kills about 250,000 ducks a year. Hudson Valley Foie Gras co-founder Michael Giron disputes assertions that foie gras production is inhumane, and he blames animal rights groups for stirring up public opinion about the issue.

"I think what they’re saying is silly," said Giron. "This hasn’t been carefully studied at all, there’s been no evidence that the process causes suffering or stress to ducks. When you humanize it and think of this being done to us, it sounds inhumane. But they have different anatomies. They have a calcified [hardened] esophagus, while we have a soft esophagus. They don’t have a gag reflex. They’re meant to gorge and grow fat on the liver as part of the migratory process."

Animal rights activists argue that the bloated ducks being raised for foie gras -- pictures of which are widely available on the internet -- would have a hard time migrating anywhere, since their bodies are so enlarged and they suffer from a liver condition called hepatic lipidosis.

Besides, most ducks bred for foie gras are not naturally migratory birds in the first place, veterinarians point out.

"In nature ducks and geese would never eat to the extent that their livers are so bloated, that their bodies are so swollen that their legs become distended and they can’t walk," said Akin. "Our investigations and others have found that [foie gras] birds end up propelling themselves with their wings instead of walking because they are so crippled. And in nature birds would never impale themselves on metal rods, as happens with the feeding tubes."

Giron said that while he cannot offer official statistics, ducks on his farm being raised for foie gras have about a 3.5 percent mortality rate, which he says is below average for poultry. He also said foie gras-bound ducks live for 16 weeks before being slaughtered, while chickens are usually slaughtered after only eight or nine weeks and other ducks generally after 10 to 12 weeks.

Animal rights activists say lifespan is not the point, if those extra weeks the animals are living are ones of disease and misery.

Giron is doubtful that legislation will pass in New York prohibiting the sale of foie gras, and he said a law banning its production would only increase the production of foie gras in France and Canada.

"And if the media is bringing more attention to the issue, even more people will want to try foie gras, so the marketplace will actually grow," he said. "More ducks will be processed, but it will happen in Canada and France."

Many of France’s European neighbors already outlaw foie gras production. A report by the Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare of the European Union extensively documents the negative impacts of foie gras procedures on birds. Among other points, it notes that at the end of the forced feeding process, "the birds were less well able to move and were usually panting, but still moved away from or tried to move away from the person who had force fed them."

Israel, which used to be one of the world’s major producers, also now bans the practice.

In the US, both opponents and supporters of the Massachusetts anti-foie gras and anti-confinement bills basically see them as wedge issues, which could open the door for more animal rights-related legislation in other states and perhaps more importantly, increased awareness of animal rights in general.

"It’s difficult to pass legislation even in states with supportive constituencies, so it would be a long way off to pass something like this in a big farming state," said Alison Stoll, international legislative coordinator of Farm Sanctuary. "But it could help set a precedent."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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Kari Lydersen is a contributing journalist.

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