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Is Bittman’s Latest New York Times’ Column Right? Is Foie Gras Unimportant?

Rated: C

Article Review:

"Let Them Eat Foie Gras"

The New York Times  -  Jan 13, 2015


Mark Bittman’s recent column on California’s overturn of the state’s foie gras ban is—for lack of a better term—weird. Really weird.

The gist is that Bittman thinks we’re paying too much attention to the cruelty of foie gras—“the most overrated of luxury ingredients”—while ignoring the reality that the vast majority of animal agriculture is cruel. In and of itself, this claim seems sensible. But it’s the way that Bittman makes his case that ultimately turns his column into a (perhaps unintended) defense of foie gras.

My first contention has to do with Bittman’s main argument. He thinks we miss the big picture of widespread animal cruelty when we focus on the small picture of an exclusive animal product. It makes more sense, he suggests, for consumers to muster outrage against the way cows, pigs, and chickens are treated before getting worked up about something as upper-shelf as foie gras. Why, in other words, should we protest the 600,000 ducks killed every year when more than that many chickens are killed every hour in the United States? “Let’s get our priorities straight,” he writes.

But think a little harder about this point. By Bittman’s logic we shouldn’t really care about people who engage in dogfighting, beat their dogs, or kill animals for snuff films. Compared to the suffering of billions of chickens, of what significance are these numerically insignificant acts of cruelty? But these numbers miss an important point: Humans aren’t computers. We don’t consult emotional calculators. We don’t regulate our outrage according to a disembodied algorithm of suffering.

Instead, we’re moved by eye-opening wedge issues that appeal to our visceral sense of right and wrong. Most people who are not psychopaths know there’s something obviously wrong with shoving a feeding tube down an animal’s throat to inflate its liver like a party balloon. This reality hits us in the gut, too. And that’s where we make most of our choices.

It is for this reason that foie gras is important. The harsh imagery of production stokes our outrage in a unique way. It makes perfect sense to use that imagery to generate concern about animal cruelty on factory farms, where the prevailing images are often healthcarewell pharmacy soothingly pastoral. It makes perfect sense, in other words, to use a small but powerful example of an injustice that’s hard to whitewash as a microcosmic (if extreme) example of the whole.

When Civil Rights leaders highlighted images of southern police officers turning firehoses and attack dogs on African Americans—an injustice that was, comparatively speaking, rare—this precise logic was followed. And for good reason: it worked.

Bittman, in an apparent effort to downplay the special cruelty of foie gras, stretches logic to a breaking point by roughly equating the funnel feeding of ducks with the trough feeding of other farm animals. He writes that because cows are typically fed grain rather than their natural diets of grass, “you might say that part of that industry’s routine is force-feeding.” This comparison borders on the absurd. For lunch today I had burrito that included vegan cheese. That cheese had undergone an ungodly amount of processing—a lot unnatural crap in there. By Bittman’s logic I should wonder: Did I just force feed myself?

Last point, one that’s more of a consistency issue than a weirdness issue. Bittman lectures those who made a big deal of the overturned foie gras ban for being misguided because, numerically speaking, foie gras is insignificant. But he then insists that readers should consider the fact that ducks don’t technically have to be force-fed (he reiterates this with a link to a TED talk).

But wait a sec. From what I know about this industry the amount of foie gras produced without force-feeding is mere decimal dust. Virtually nil. Numerically irrelevant. But this numerical insignificance hardly keeps Bittman from reminding readers that foie gras feeding is not necessarily all that cruel. In so doing he deploys the very tactic his entire column warns us against using.

“Let Them Eat Foie Gras,” reads the headline. Here is exactly what I’m left wondering: let who eat it? Was this column designed to assure weathy foie gras eaters—and, by extension, anyone who eats any kind of exclusive, small-batch, artisanal crafted animal-based delicacy—that he’s off the hook, all the while leaving hoi polloi Big Mac munchers to dangle in shame?

If so, it may have succeeded.



11 Comments on Is Bittman’s Latest New York Times’ Column Right? Is Foie Gras Unimportant?

  1. Janine Perlman // January 14, 2015 at 3:49 pm // Reply

    >He writes that because cows are typically fed grain rather than their natural diets of grass, “you might say that part of that industry’s routine is force-feeding.”

    I am the last person to defend Bittman, but do want to note that forcing cows to eat unnatural grains (in feedlots, if they’re going to eat, they have no choice) does have some parallels to what’s done to ducks/geese. The grains cause ruminal microflora imbalances with resultant acidosis, pain, infection, ulcers (often perforating), liver abscesses, and sepsis. That’s why antibiotics are routinely administered to grain-fed cattle. Antibiotics neither cure them nor alleviate their suffering; they just make their carcasses sell-able.

  2. I happen to love the first paragraph of Bittman’s article, but you’re right, it goes crashing downhill from there. Not only is he in denial about how this cruel practice does stand out as exceptionally egregious, so much so that it has been banned in numerous countries, he seems to not understand the importance of single issue campaigns – working on small, winnable issues to make larger strides possible. Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns explores the importance of single issue campaigns in this well-written piece: http://www.upc-online.org/activism/140717_single-issue_campaigns.html

  3. I wrote numerous comments on this article today, starting with the fact that Dan Barber himself admits he was unable to replicate the so-called humane foie gras method done by one farmer in Europe. The video he links to is rather Savoryesque in that sense: fantasy.

    The good news is that plenty of readers noted the very problems you did, James, and commented well. And I got a couple of plugs in for Regal Vegan’s “Faux Gras”

  4. Great piece, James—as always.

  5. John T. Maher // January 14, 2015 at 10:53 pm // Reply

    Moral relativism.

  6. Excellent assessment, James. I felt the same way while reading Bittman’s column yesterday. As the saying goes, “One murder is a tragedy; a million is a statistic”. Calling attention to the force-feeding of ducks (even if there are *only* 600,000 of them) is in some ways more tangible and visceral to people than trying to wrap one’s mind around the billions of chickens that are slaughtered (out of sight) annually.

    • Chicago takes a step back into dark ages !!!!!!!The progressive Chicago foie gras ban, sprosoned by Alderman Joe Moore and originally passed in 2006 by a vote of 48-1, has been repealed today due to shameless manipulation by restaurant industry lobbyists to bring the diseased, rotting organs of abused ducks and geese back to Chicago’s restaurants.In the course of our work to keep this ban intact, we’ve talked to thousands of people on the streets of Chicago, the overwhelming majority of whom were horrified when they learned about the cruelty behind foie gras. Many of these people joined us in vocal support for Chicago’s progressive ban of the barbaric product. Unfortunately, in large part thanks to a handful of powerful people, battling wealthy industries can be a long, hard battle, regardless of where the public stands on the issue.This decision is a big step backwards for the city, and it goes against the tide of civilized communities who are making the compassionate decision to ban foie gras.It’s pretty clear from the desperate angling we’ve seen from the foie gras industry as they’ve fought against this ban that they know their days are numbered, but it’s a hell of a shame to see that, even in their death throes, they can still find a way to poison a beautiful thing. We will keep fighting to pass more foie gras bans and to educate the public about this delicacy of despair. You can count on that.

  7. Hi James,
    I think it is Norm Phelps who said in his book, Changing The Game, that “The life of one turkey may not seem to mean much, but it means everything to the turkey whose life it is”. I think that we as humans do not have the right to decide which lives are important and which are not, based solely on how many individuals are in the affected group. We need to save them all and the way to do is to know that every life is valuable. There, but for fortune….

  8. Allison Becker // January 16, 2015 at 7:38 am // Reply

    To chime in with an international point of view, if I may: I live in France, the capital of foie gras production and consumption. The people here eat foie gras a few times a year and it is a staple during the holidays. In December, the grocery stores set up large seasonal areas selling several brands of it and you see signs and newspaper articles everywhere insisting that “it’s not Christmas without foie gras”. According to various sources, the French sacrifice well over 30 million ducks and geese to the practice annually and French law requires that the birds be force fed corn in order to call the finished product “foie gras”.

    This may seem irrelevant to those in the states but based on my time living here, (just over a year now,) the foie gras controversy in the US is a big topic of conversation for the French, especially those around my age (in our 30’s) and younger. I have had more conversations than I can count that begin with someone bringing up (or eating) foie gras, and then quickly turn into a discussion on the bans in the US. The cruelty of it is weighed against its traditional place in French cuisine. The bans in the states (and elsewhere) are forcing people to think about it, even in the country where the majority of foie gras is produced (between 70 – 80% of the world’s foie gras comes from France.)

    In conclusion, referring to foie gras consumption & production in the states as “pretty much a nonissue” is ridiculously short-sighted. Of course forcibly shoving a feeding tube down the throat of a sentient animal is cruel and if the US, UK, and various countries in the EU can put some political and social pressure on France to discontinue the tradition, the global population of ducks & geese, (not to mention us humans,) would be all the better for it.

    P.S. Hello to Professor McWilliams (James)! from an old student. 🙂

  9. cruelty is cruelty. none should be condoned or ignored.
    eliminate the cause, always.
    i applaud your column.

    • James McWilliams // January 17, 2015 at 8:50 pm // Reply

      So good to hear from you, Allison. Bob and I had another successful round of Eating Animals in America and the third round comes next fall!

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