A misguided effort on foie gras

Rather than banning foie gras production, wouldn’t it make more sense to permit it, but under reasonable controls that guarantee the birds’ welfare, Jewish values?

Foie gras birds chicks 521 (photo credit: David Gray/Reuters)
Foie gras birds chicks 521
(photo credit: David Gray/Reuters)
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 sale.
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.”
The process used to enlarge the liver, which utilizes the bird’s natural mechanism for storing energy before its annual migration, indeed sounds awful.
So why do we oppose the ban? Because it is based on bad science, bad Halacha, bad policy and bad politics.
Bad science
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.
Similarly, 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.
The most important aspect of all of the various reports was the personal visit.
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 – not emotion.
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 practice...
seemed neither particularly gentle nor particularly rough.”
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.
Bad Halacha
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.
The 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 bird.
Bad politics
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 groups.
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 brain.
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 groups.
Bad policy 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 morality.
It behooves us to be careful judging practices approved in other countries.
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.
Indeed, this 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 export.
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.
We 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.
Moreover, banning 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.
Rabbi 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 animals.
Doni Zivotofsky is a small and large animal veterinarian.