Profiles in Courage on Animal Welfare

Late last month the Chicago City Council took the incredibly courageous step of banning the sale of foie gras — the livers of ducks and geese that have been force-fed corn — within the city limits. The move, which followed on the heels of an equally bold ban signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, risked offending such well-organized and powerful food-industry interests as, well, let’s see …. the two tiny farms, one in Sonoma County and one in New York’s Hudson Valley, that produce the entire U.S. foie gras crop. And don’t forget the several dozen tony restaurants that serve the delicacy to a slightly larger handful of well-heeled Francophiles.

Earlier this month these interests finally got it together to form a group — the North American Foie Gras Producers Association — to defend against the rising prohibitionist wave: to date, legislation to ban foie gras has been introduced in six states. How delicious it must feel for a legislator to strike a blow on behalf of defenseless ducks and geese at the expense of an unpronounceable and Frenchified delicacy that maybe .00000001 percent of their constituents would even dream of ordering, assuming they could afford it. Such an exquisitely painless political opportunity doesn’t come along every day.

For animal rights groups, the battle to ban foie gras must seem like a tasty target of opportunity — the lowest-hanging fruit in their campaign to improve the lives of animals in industrial agriculture. “It’s only a matter of time before practices like cramming nine hens into an 18-by-20-inch wire mesh cage for their entire lives is made illegal,” Bruce Friedrich, an official of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), told a reporter after the victory in Chicago.

We can only hope he’s right. The lives of billions of animals on American feedlots and factory farms are horrible to contemplate, an affront to our image of ourselves as humane. But banning foie gras will not do much to advance the larger cause. By suggesting we’ve outlawed the most heinous practice in animal agriculture, the campaign against foie gras allows everyone to feel good about doing something for the animals. Yet it leaves the much larger problem untouched.

Chances are you haven’t had any foie gras today, but you may well have eaten eggs. It is routine practice to cram laying hens into cages so small that the birds are sometimes driven to cannibalize their cagemates. The solution to this “vice” — as the industry and the Department of Agriculture call such counterproductive behaviors in livestock (talk about blaming the victims!) — is to snip the beaks off the hens with hot knives, without anesthetic. Similarly, the U.S.D.A.’s recommended solution for the “vice” of tail-biting among hogs driven mad by close confinement is to snip off their tails — with a pliers, without anesthetic. To peer over the increasingly high walls of our industrial animal agriculture is not only to lose your appetite but to feel revulsion and shame.

Mutilating pigs and chickens while they are alive is as routine in modern American agriculture as bacon and eggs for breakfast. These operations are performed every day on thousands of factory farms that are owned by, or under contract to, Fortune 500 corporations that supply hundreds of thousands of restaurants and supermarkets. There is, as yet, scant appetite among elected officials to challenge these practices; so far, change has come, to the extent it has, because of direct action by animal rights groups like PETA. Whatever you may think of their tactics, they have won important concessions from the fast food industry, extracting a few more square inches of living space for those poor hens and for the sows, many of whom still live in pens so small they cannot turn around.

Politicians sense a gathering outrage over the treatment of animals in American agriculture. So what to do? Or, more precisely, what to seem to do? Because to do anything of consequence would mean to confront the considerable power of agribusiness. Some of the best-organized and most widely dispersed political interests in America — factory farmers, feedlot owners, meat processors and the restaurant industry — will not yield without a fight their freedom to abuse animals as they see fit. Such abuse is extremely profitable, and it is the reason why meat in this country is so cheap. In fact, the abuse is protected by law: Most federal animal cruelty laws specifically exempt agriculture — where most of the animals are. Thus you may not kick your dog in public, but you’re free to mutilate pigs and chickens behind the fences of C.A.F.O.’s (concentrated animal feeding operations).

Rather than take on that big fight, the politicians have hit on a wonderful simulacrum: going after America’s two little, politically unconnected foie gras producers.

I’m not about to defend foie gras from the legions of righteous animal defenders. But do we have any reason to believe that feeding ducks and geese corn through tubes put down their throats is any more brutal than snipping off tails and beaks? I have not visited either of America’s foie gras farms, but I note that they have invited journalists to visit and see the operations for themselves. (Just try to wangle your way into an industrial chicken or hog facility.) Some of the journalists who have accepted that invitation report that the birds rush over to the farmers at feeding time. Our own visceral revulsion at the prospect of having tubes stuck down our throats may have to do with the fact we have a gag reflex; ducks and geese do not. I seriously doubt you’d ever see pigs rushing over to the man wielding the pliers.

To ban foie gras is symbolic politics at its worst, a way to create the appearance of doing something about a problem that politicians — and, let’s face it, most of us eaters — would rather not confront. So we close down a couple of foie gras farms. (Though the California law gives the farmers till 2012 to desist, which is odd: if force-feeding ducks is really so heinous, then how in good conscience can we abide the practice for six more years?) We brace ourselves for a major change in our eating habits: no more foie gras after 2012. What a sacrifice! And, after patting ourselves on the back for all we’ve done for the animals, we can now, with clear conscience, turn back to our breakfast, ordering bacon and eggs, sunny side up.