It’s been more than three years now since the California production of pâté de foie gras was — well, as we wrote at the time, not exactly banned.1 Let’s take a look at what’s unfolded since then. Foie gras (in English, “fat liver”) is made by pushing a feeding tube down the throat of a male duck or goose and injecting up to a pound of corn, fat, salt and water two to three times a day for two to four weeks until the liver expands from about three ounces to around 1.5 pounds or more.
Protests, held by numerous community-based and large national groups at various restaurants and even restaurateurs’ homes, have aimed to get liver pâté off various menus. A few restaurants and the city of Chicago agreed to rule out the product. In Chicago, reports of flouting the ban soon became widespread, until, as reported by the international media in May, the ban was overturned by the city council in a vote of 36-6.
And then there was California’s supposed ban of both the production and sale of foie gras — but only if one producer in that state, who is working with university scientists to test new methods on the birds, fails to come up with an acceptable production process (whether by using softer tubes, training birds to gorge themselves, or genetically engineering the birds for less pain sensitivity) by 2012.2 So when 2012 comes around, foie gras production is unlikely to be interrupted; the business is more likely to jump on the humane agribusiness bandwagon, just as veal producers did. The celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, who, for now, avoids foie gras and serves supposedly humane veal, is actually receiving star billing at this year’s Genesis Awards, a gala event hosted annually by the Hollywood office of Humane Society of the United States. And the Spanish company Pateria de Sousa has already won an award — in France, no less – for its tubeless, “ethical” goose liver pâté.3 The birds are slaughtered once their stomachs begin to drag on the ground.
Let’s be clear: No one is saying it’s wrong to want to minimize suffering caused by the use of animals people own. Most people will agree that less harsh treatment is preferable. Owners of businesses that trade in animals prefer it. But is reducing suffering the same as advancing a movement? Or does it mean, rather, that the public reads the message as a request to pay the industries more, so that husbandry is included in the price of an item?
With both veal and foie gras, it seems the public has heard the activists, but judged the challenge as involving a focus on the apparently worst ways to treat animals. So people applaud revised methods of producing the same product that was once thought unbearable. These campaigns need activism that actually convinces the public to avoid veal — and that means avoiding the dairy industry that churns out the calves — and to reject foie gras. People should be offered information that explains the effects of dairy production on cows and their young. They need to know it’s entirely possible to enjoy an ice cream that’s dairy-free, to love a night out at a restaurant for risotto with spinach, rather than veal, and to replace foie gras with an outstanding vegetable pâté.
One activist with the Philadelphia-area group CARE,4 after trying the rich carrot pâté in our cookbook, Dining With Friends, brought it to a fine-dining restaurant so the clientele could sample it. Sharing excellent alternatives, the way the CARE activist is doing, makes sense. Otherwise, even if people do agree to drop foie gras, they might regain their taste for it once they see a supposedly ethical version, or they might just as well switch to lamb’s tongue salad or steak tartare.
In January 2008, guided by its campus Vegan Society, t he catering services of the University of Glasgow acknowledged that high-quality vegan food “appeals to just about everyone” and is “healthy, ethical and planet-friendly” and thus became the largest catering service to gain Vegan Society accreditation.5
All products and services registered with the Vegan Society must be free of animal ingredients and animal testing, and adhere to a set of kitchen and hygiene standards; the presence of any genetically modified ingredients must be made clear on the label. The University of Glasgow has met these criteria, and now displays the Vegan Society's sunflower logo to promote an extensive vegan menu. Dishes such as Thai Green Curry; Falafel with Cauliflower Gratin; Chick Pea Arriabatta; Baked Squash with Cajun Tofu; and Falafel with Asparagus and Fennel Compote are now available at every meal, every day, in dining areas open to the public. A menu so attractive will predictably gain supporters for further expansion, even as it makes the vegan sunflower a familiar and desirable signal.
An announcement of the accreditation was strikingly juxtaposed against a promotion for McDonald's training awards in the magazine of the University Caterers organization — an inadvertent reminder of just how much this alliance is needed. The accreditation was also mentioned in The Scotsman and in the educational supplement for The Times. Pembroke College in Cambridge soon signed up as well, and then other schools began to follow suit!
The student group understands that expanding veganism will mean cages – of any size – are no longer needed at all. No need to focus vast energy, resources, conference panels or sections of textbooks on the idea of enlarging containment systems used in the already sprawling agribusiness sector. What’s important is focusing attention on making animal-free cuisine healthful and attractive, so people will see we’re not really “giving up” anything, so much as being offered desirable, exciting foods.
The president of the rescue group Farm Sanctuary, as a panelist at this year’s Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin annual meeting, told the group the filming of sick and injured animals being forced to slaughter at the Westland/Hallmark plant in California gained national attention, but that the government has “known about this for a long time and they’ve said in the past it is a concern for them and the problem continues.”6 The only way to change it, said the rescue group’s head, is “to not allow any downed animals to go to slaughterhouses to be processed for food” — that they be killed or “given proper veterinary care to be made healthy again.” It’s odd, to say the least, to hear a rescue advocate coaching attendees at an animal agribusiness conference.
Former dairy farmer Harold Brown has pointed out that wherever vegan products become desirable to conscientious people, sellers of animal products tend to compete by improving themselves. They do not need advocates to help make their products look good; and in reality, no matter how much attention activists lavish on them, animal agribusiness can never truly be improved except by being phased out. Corporations exist to make profit, so what they give with one hand they will make up with the other.
There is nothing humane about killing unnecessarily. Moreover, every bigger cage and every cleared pasture, on a finite planet, means less space for untamed life. And it’s untamed space where animal rights will be found.
The London-based group Vegan Campaigns has supported 25 people who pledged to be vegan for a month. The group offered recipes, a cooking demonstration and vegan buffet, and held group discussions and a panel featuring a nutrition expert, a doctor and a long-term vegan with a young child. During the month, an estimated 138 animals7 and about 5½ square miles of land were spared from the meat, dairy and laying industries.8 A dozen participants planned to stay vegan.9 Another, an omnivore, decided to be vegan for another month. Participants also said their family members were eating more vegan food, and some challenged their work colleagues to be vegan.
Dr. Mike Hooper, a general practitioner who gave free health checks to the group, reported :
It was surprising how quickly switching over to a vegan diet improved people’s health. Most participants lost weight, and their average for two important health indicators — Body Mass Index and waist-hip ratio — came down from an at-risk level into the ideal range, as well as an overall reduction in blood pressure. ‘Pledgers’ also reported more energy, better sleep, better digestion, fewer pre-menstrual symptoms, and healthier skin, nails and hair.
The average participant reported exercising more, drinking more water, and having less caffeine and alcohol. Participants shed an average of 4 lb. each.
Four participants measured their cholesterol before and after the pledge. One started with and remained at a low cholesterol level. A second went from being near the lowest level to being squarely within the lowest level. And the other two moved from borderline high to desirable cholesterol levels.
The project was advertised through leaflets, magazines, Internet groups, posters in health food shops and word of mouth. One participant had visited the Vegan Society website to look for a butter bean casserole recipe featured at a food fair, and saw the Vegan Pledge advertisement. One omnivore “used to be vegetarian and wanted to go back to it, saw [the] ad and thought I’d give veganism a go.”
Participants filled out and submitted questionnaires in return for vegan goody bags. Asked what they found most challenging about being vegan, most cited eating out, or finding vegan food on the go. University student Miriam Mallalieu said finding lunch at school was difficult, noting that even the tomato and lentil soup contained milk.
But eating at friends’ houses was the biggest hitch. Being vegan, participants noted, requires planning ahead, and remembering ethics instead of being “swayed.” When people couldn’t eat, they “felt rude” or uncomfortable because people tried to persuade them to eat non-vegan food. Yet one of the pledgers wrote of having “met a lot more vegans, which encourages me to be vegan.”
Most participants reported feeling more energetic and healthier (not being as affected by a cold, for example). Some also expressed a feeling of taking ecological concerns seriously. ( A varied vegan diet uses half the one fifth of the land used for a typical European omnivorous diet, according to Vegan Campaigns; and animal farming disrupts our climate more than all transport combined, according to the United Nations.)
Another comment focused on ethics:
Morally I can’t cope with eating dairy. The more knowledge I gain, the less my conscience will let me succumb. I may have the odd lapse in the future but I know I will feel I am helping in some way if I stick to my guns. I just cannot eat something knowing an animal has suffered in any way, shape or form. Ignorance is no excuse.
Good feelings about the project came from “making the commitment, which was long overdue” and “the fact that the food looks so good.” Only two pledgers decided to resume their original diets (one was an omnivore and one was an ovo-lacto-vegetarian), although one pesco-vegetatarian dropped out. One pledger wrote, “It has had a good impact on my health. I am almost certain I will continue to be vegan and if I do it will be mainly for health reasons.”
For the 2009 New Year, the plan is to double the number of participants, to encourage similar projects elsewhere, and to increase publicity. Participants may be the project’s best spokespeople. One said, “I think I have been vegan at heart since I became vegetarian twenty years ago, but never had the support or encouragement to take the step. Taking the vegan pledge has made it possible for me. Thank you.”
And Emma McMorrow, an actor who took the pledge, asked, “Once you know the facts, how can you not be vegan?”
- 1. Lee Hall, “A Faux Ban of Foie Gras: 440,000 Ducks Used as Bargaining Chips”
(Winter 2004-05); this and other past issues of our magazine are available on the Internet, at the Friends of Animals site.
- See Paul Payne’s article “Sonoma Foie Gras Producer Hopes to Show Process Humane,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat (12 Jul. 2004): “About 55,000 ducks were processed at the farm in 2002 to make the high-end treat that sells for up to $45 a pound.” At that rate, between 2004 and 2012, about 440,000 more ducks will have been stuffed and slaughtered. The owner of Sonoma Foie Gras “says he’ll use grace period in a proposed law to form a panel of researchers to prove ducks don’t suffer,” reported Paul Payne in the same article.
- 3. Claire Heald and Diarmuid Mitchell, “ The Holy Grail of Foie Gras? BBC News Magazine (26 Jan. 2007).
- 4. Compassion for Animals, Respect for the Environment (based in West Chester, Pennsylvania).
- 5. “Glasgow University Sets the Sunflower Standard” appears at http://www.tuco.org/node/381. The TUCO website publishes the magazine of the University Caterers organization.
- 6. See Bob Meyer, “A Vegan´s View of Westland/Hallmark” ( published by Brownfield, Learfield Communications, Inc. on 13 Mar. 2008).
- 7. Omnivores and pesco-vegetarians, according to the conveners of the pledge, eat on average 11.5 animals a month. Around 33.4m laying hens are killed each year in Britain and dairy production costs the lives of 1.14m cattle a year. These figures were used to form the estimate.
- 8. The conveners used the carbon calculator at www.earthday.net to work this out, based on the amount of animal products and processed food participants had eaten before the pledge.
- 9. Four of these participants had been omnivores, eight had been ovo-lacto-vegetarians or pesco-vegetarians — that is, people who ate fish, but no other kind of flesh. Thanks to Donald Leung in London for helpful accounts of this project, for which a full report appears on the Vegan Campaigns website: http://vegancampaigns.org.uk/veganpledgeevaluationreport.pdf