Foie Gras and Animal Suffering

The Metro Section of the New York Times on Sunday featured an article about the Upper West Side Fairway Market and Farm Sanctuary. The paper reported that Fairway had, until recently, had signs in their stores making jokes about the "supposedly" cruel methods by which pate de foie gras (diseased liver paste made by forcefeeding ducks and geese through a tube until their livers are several times normal size and then killing them) is made. The import of the signs was that despite all of the "pressure" not to sell this product, Fairway would continue to carry it. Farm Sanctuary, an animal rights group that protests the cruelty of animal farming (particularly factory farming, through which most meat in this country is produced) has been doing publicity in New York lately on -- among other things -- the cruelty of pate de foie gras production, so Fairway has taken down the signs, though it continues to sell the product. The Times article quotes a senior manager who calls the Farm Sanctuary Folks "weirdos." The article closes with the following line: "Nearby [the expensive foie gras containers, focus of the controversy], a plastic tub of chicken livers, $1.59 a pound, kept a relatively low profile."

The article is clearly meant as comic relief. The message is that New York is filled with all kinds of quirky folks, including the protesters and the foodies, and that is what makes it so interesting and lively. The writer even makes a potentially useful point about inconsistency -- while everyone is focused on one product of animal cruelty, another receives barely any notice. I say "potentially" useful because in fact, the writer gives no evidence of taking seriously the argument that it is wrong to pay people to torture animals for one's own gustatory pleasure (which is what one does as a consumer of nearly all animal products). By pointing out the chicken livers, the writer thus implies that because animal cruelty is ubiquitous at the store, the animal rights activists might as well just shut up and eat like everyone else. One could, of course, make a very different argument -- chicken livers are wrong too, so our moral discomfort with eating (and thereby financing the production of) foie gras should perhaps awaken in us a more general discomfort with consuming animal products.

When I first began telling people that I was a vegetarian, they would often ask whether I wore leather. It happens that I no longer wear leather, although moving away from relying on dead animals has been a relatively long process for me, so I did wear leather for a while even after I stopped eating meat. The question, however, -- like the writer's suggestion in the Times article -- seemed aimed at suggesting that I might be a hypocrite and that my interlocutor therefore need not give her carnivorous lifestyle a second thought. In that sense, the question resembled "so what do you eat, then -- salad?" or "did you know that Hitler was a vegetarian?" (incidentally, he wasn't) -- ways of dismissing the notion that eating animals is wrong by suggesting that a cruelty-free diet is either empty and thoroughly impractical or that the most famous proponent of cruelty-free eating was a genocidal maniac. Interestingly, such comments are usually not responses to my condemning or even questioning their food choices. I virtually never ask anyone to explain why he or she eats (or wears) animals. The comments instead follow the simple statement that I am a vegan (which I generally say only because I am at a restaurant and need to inquire with the waiter before I order off the menu).

Though some people truly believe that animal suffering does not matter at all, most of us feel empathy toward animals and do not want them to suffer. Nonetheless, as a society, we consume more animals (mammals, birds, fish, etc.) than we ever have before, notwithstanding the mounting evidence that animals feel pain, fear, and grief, just as we do. Learning, for example, of a cow taken away to slaughter, while a neighboring cow bellowed for days, looking vainly in the missing friend's direction disturbed me enough years ago to make me give up "red meat" (mammals). Those who market animals to us try to make it easy to consume the products, by hiding the suffering (and even depicting life on the farm as happy). But it should not be easy. As Isaac Bashevis Singer says through a character in his story, "The Letter Writer": "They [humankind] have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka."