Just a few months ago, a national election put a new government in power that
included an unprecedented number of rookie lawmakers.
Hopes were high for
important, creative, bold initiatives.
We read daily in the newspapers
about a current legislative initiative to supposedly right a serious wrong by
banning the importation of foie gras.
We believe this is a misguided
effort based on erroneous premises.
It is not our intent to defend the
right to eat foie gras or to encourage the practice of force-feeding animals.
Rather, it is to explain our serious reservations about the proposed legislation
to ban the importation of the delicacy.
The production of foie gras was
officially outlawed in Israel almost a decade ago but implementation of the ban
was delayed by protracted appeals, and then finally enforced in 2006. It is
ironic that many European countries have outlawed the production of foie gras,
despite most having never actually produced it. Furthermore, worldwide, other
than the state of California, no jurisdiction currently bans its importation or
Foie gras (French for “fat liver”), the product of a process that
is well over 4,000 years old, is a delicacy made from the liver of a duck or
goose that has been specially fattened, often by “force-feeding.”
process used to enlarge the liver, which utilizes the bird’s natural mechanism
for storing energy before its annual migration, indeed sounds awful.
why do we oppose the ban? Because it is based on bad science, bad Halacha, bad
policy and bad politics.
At the heart of the matter lies the
question: Is foie gras production an inhumane practice? In general, gauging pain
and suffering in animals presents a difficult scientific challenge, but it is
widely accepted that anthropomorphically defining these issues results in
inaccurate conclusions. For example, the popular human emotional response is
that certainly free range chickens are healthier and happier than their cooped
brethren. Yet recent studies out of the UK’s University of Bristol revealed that
when given a choice, chickens in fact prefer to not range, and those who do are
less healthy and actually present health and hygiene problems.
animal rights organizations report on the horrible suffering endured by the
ducks and geese used for foie gras – but these militant groups oppose all meat
consumption, so this should come as no surprise. These birds are fed three times
daily for less than 10 seconds via a process called gavage. Various
veterinarians and veterinary organizations have repeatedly investigated the foie
gras issue. A 2004 study in the World’s Poultry Science Journal concluded that
the feeding procedure produced neither physiological indicators nor behavioral
responses indicating stress.
The American Veterinary Medical Association
(AVMA), for its part, has called for additional research, but in the meantime
has refrained from criticizing the practice. This cannot be attributed to
financial incentive, as the US produces well under 2 percent of the world’s foie
gras. In 2004 and 2005, the AVMA’s House of Delegates (HOD), the US accrediting
body of veterinary medicine, was forwarded resolutions from its animal welfare
committee to oppose the production methods for foie gras. After hearing
testimony from 13 delegates, the HOD declined to take a position but issued the
following simple statement: “Limited peer-reviewed, scientific information is
available dealing with the animal welfare concerns associated with foie gras
production. But the observations and practical experience shared by HOD members
indicate a minimum of adverse effects on the birds involved.” Moreover, in 2006
the AVMA again voted to oppose anti-foie gras resolutions.
important aspect of all of the various reports was the personal
The HOD sent delegates to visit foie gras farms; Dr. Thomas
Munschauer, their representative, visited a New York farm. He reported: “It
didn’t seem like the birds were distressed.” He judged the facility to be better
than most places where broilers are raised. “For the most part, they appear to
be well cared for.”
So too Dr. Robert Gordon visited a farm and stated,
“After being on the premises, my position changed dramatically,” positively. He
also testified that tube feeding is less distressing than taking the rectal
temperature of a cat, and urged the AVMA to take a position based on science –
In June 2005, The New York Times editor Lawrence Downes was
invited to a visit a foie gras farm and he “saw no pain or panic... The birds
submitted matter-of-factly to a 15-inch tube inserted down the throat… The
seemed neither particularly gentle nor particularly
Similar sentiments appear to be the norm for those who visit,
rather than merely read about, foie gras farms. The description of the process
as presented in media reports and animal rights campaigns indeed sounds
unpleasant, but as in all decisions that are based on reality, the facts must be
ascertained. Has even one of the many MKs supporting this law visited a farm, or
are they relying on hearsay? Emotion-driven legislation is a mistake in this
instance, as it was in the misguided legislation passed by the previous Knesset
that is further exacerbating an existing rabies epidemic in Israel.
This proposed law has the support of several religious MKs, who argue
that the biblical prohibition of tza’ar ba’alei hayim – causing undue suffering
to animals – is violated in foie gras production.
Halacha is a
precedent-based system and, fortunately, great halachic authorities over the
last 250 years have written a great deal about the kashrut of foie gras. Some,
such as the Bach and Bnei Yissaschar, have even banned foie gras in strong
terms, while others permitted this very popular delicacy. In all of the
relevant, pre-21st-century literature, we have found that the halachic
discussions, without exception, focus on the treifot issue – i.e. does the
process lead to an impermissible perforation of the esophagus – yet never raise
the question of tza’ar ba’alei hayim.
Elsewhere when a practice does
violate that principle, the rabbis do address it. For example, Rabbi Moshe
Feinstein discussed the permissibility of veal, and raised questions of both
treifot and tza’ar ba’alei hayim. Yet the numerous European rabbis who discussed
foie gras did not raise the cruelty issue, and it was not mentioned until Rabbi
Ovadia Yosef did so in the 21st century. And unlike most of the MKs who live in
urban settings, most of these rabbis saw the ducks and their feeding methods,
and presumably were satisfied with the ethics of the practice.
rabbinate is attuned to these issues.
Before granting its initial
certification to Israeli foie gras in 1969, the Chief Rabbinate turned to Rabbi
Israel Meir Levinger, DVM, who modified the feeding process in order to prevent
treifot, avoid Shabbat desecration, and, yes, to avoid pain to the
When involved in public policy, it is crucial to be
careful with whom one goes to bed. This legislation was initiated and drafted by
extremist animal rights groups. While many of their objectives sound laudable,
internationally these militant animal rights organizations will stop at nothing
– including terror – to achieve their goals.
In this way, the only
building at Bar- Ilan University in which a biometric security entry system is
employed is the one in which one of us works. It is not because of the
top-secret research taking place there, but rather because animal research aimed
at understanding neurodegenerative diseases and other human ailments takes place
within its premises. And no, it is not for fear that the monkeys might escape,
but because the facility must be protected from vigilantism of these
In other countries, their counterparts have released animals,
destroyed data and scientific equipment, and threatened researchers and their
families. It reached the point that in 2006 the US Senate felt compelled to
unanimously pass the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. A lab near mine which
studies memory and learning is currently unable to import its animal model via
El Al thanks to the efforts of such groups.
And what is this animal
model? Aplysia – a type of sea slug which does not even have a central
Just because some of their ideas have value does not mean that one
should collaborate with them. One of the most pro-animal rights governments of
the 20th century was the German Third Reich. We find it unlikely that if these
MKs were approached by Nazis who requested their participating in the passing of
some worthwhile legislation, they would team up with them. These groups are
merely using the Knesset for whatever steps they can, but will never be
satisfied. After foie gras production was banned, one of the spokesmen for such
a group, a self-declared anarchist and anti-Zionist, was asked what other issues
are on the agenda. He replied: “The main issue is to persuade people to get rid
of meat, eggs and milk.”
Is this what the Knesset has in store for us?
Both the Talmud and modern social psychology emphasize the importance of the
company one keeps.
The Knesset should be staying far away from such
It is also important to look at the global context
when passing national legislation.
Judaism cares very much about animal
suffering and there is a biblical prohibition aimed at preventing tza’ar ba’alei
hayim. We are told that this legislation will help make Israel an or lagoyim, a
universal model for national ethics.
Unfortunately, this legislation is
more likely to backfire. Rather than other nations being impressed and following
our lead, European rabbis and Jewish community leaders, including but not
limited to the head of the Paris Rabbinical Court and the secretary-general of
the European Jewish Congress, have warned that European countries may try to use
this as one more weapon in their efforts to ban shechita. In particular, France
(producer of almost 80% of world foie gras), but other European countries as
well, are likely to argue that just as you, Israel, have determined that what we
do is immoral and have therefore banned it, it is our right to determine that
the Jewish method of slaughter does not meet our standards of
It behooves us to be careful judging practices approved in
While we may disagree and insist that shechita is indeed
humane, this is irrelevant to the fact that they might use such an argument, and
responsible Jewish voices from Europe should be heard.
proposed legislation closes what would seem to be a hypocritical loophole. The
proposed legislation implies that simply outlawing foie gras production within
Israel did not reduce the overall suffering of ducks caused by Israelis,
necessitating the proposed ban on its commercial importation. This despite the
fact that the majority of foie gras produced in Israel was for
Several European countries have already banned shechita, but have
left open the option of importing kosher meat. What this legislation does is
provide them with ammunition to close that option for their Jews.
commend our elected representatives for their efforts in improving the ethical
standards of the country, but we are concerned about the misplaced priorities in
this particular case. It would seem (I say this tongue in cheek) that those
concerned about the ethical source of food should ban the importation of
chocolate, for which many thousands of children labor in inhumane conditions to
harvest the cocoa beans; or products made in sweatshops in China; or quinoa,
whose export is leading to famine in its native lands.
foie gras production put many people out of work. Israel produced over 500 tons
annually. For centuries, this has been a Jewish business – documented as far
back as the 11th century. In 16th-century Western Europe, Jewish suppliers were
the principal source of fattened goose liver, and in the 19th century it was
widespread both commercially and privately, particularly among Hungarian Jews.
The proposed legislation will lead to more unemployed Israelis, who currently
travel to Hungary to produce and slaughter the ducks and geese.
Abraham Isaac Kook was known as an advocate for animal welfare, yet he stopped
short of advocating general vegetarianism, because he correctly foresaw that a
society that is overly concerned with animal welfare will lose sight of the need
to care for its human citizens.
Is owning a pet ethical? There are many
examples of pets who are mistreated.
Why don’t we ban pets? Because pets
can be treated in the most luxurious conditions or be horribly abused, and there
are laws in place that attempt to protect pets and ensure that the former occurs
more than the latter. The same is undoubtedly true with regard to foie gras.
There can be farms in which the conditions and the process are done in a most
inhumane manner, or there can be farms such as those described above in which
the animals are treated better than many pets.
Foie gras production is
clearly not intrinsically bad (as is, for example, bull fighting). Rather than
banning foie gras production across the board, wouldn’t it make more sense to
permit it, but under reasonable controls that guarantee the birds’ welfare and
the Jewish values that we hold so dear?
Ari Zivotofsky is on the faculty of
the Bar-Ilan Brain Science Program and researches kashrut issues related to
Doni Zivotofsky is a small and large animal veterinarian.