The New York Times' Mark Bittman made a curious case for foie gras in an op-ed published on Tuesday: "Almost all meat production in the United States is cruel."
Bittman argues in favor of the recent overturn of a California foie gras ban, claiming that concerns about the cruelty of overfeeding a relatively small number of ducks and geese miss the big picture of the animal welfare debate. He writes that chickens are raised for meat in "conditions that range from unnatural to torturous" and goes on to justify suffering with more suffering:
If you allow that the same is true of most animals raised in the United States, from dairy cows (which last year produced roughly 206 billion pounds of milk) to egg-laying hens (over 98 billion eggs) to cattle raised for beef (24 billion pounds), you are looking at an industry that produces cruelty on a scale that's so big and overwhelming few of us can consider it rationally or regularly.
He's got a point. When considering the enormity of industrial farming, the foie gras sector is small. And the problems that plague broiler chickens, egg-laying hens, cattle and sows are almost too large to comprehend. And Bittman is normally considered a titan of animal welfare, and has championed better industrial agriculture standards for animals in the past. But this type of thinking - only allowing outrage to be doled out based on the scale of a problem, regardless of its impact on the public's perception of industrial farming as a whole - has some holes.
James McWilliams, a professor of history at Texas State University and a prolific writer on industrial agriculture and meat consumption, says that the animal rights movement has historically - and successfully - used powerful examples of animal cruelty to call attention to larger problems. Foie gras production is one chilling example of the horrors that factory farming inflicts on livestock.
He took to his website, The Daily Pitchfork, to elaborate:
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 soothingly pastoral.
In fact, small groups of animals - or even individual animals - have often become mascots of the animal rights movement, ushering in better protections or regulations for their entire species. The documentary "Blackfish" used the plight of a massive male orca named Tilikum to expose the problems of keeping orcas in captivity; a young albino calf named "Angel" caught in the dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan called international attention to the hunts that killed her pod. When one of Africa's most famous elephants, a huge bull named Satao, was poached, poaching was thrusted into the international spotlight. Is our outrage on behalf of these individuals misplaced, because they are few?
The plight of one can speak for many - and no case is that clearer than in factory farming. There is no question that ducks suffer in the production of foie gras, just as other industrial livestock do. Foie gras is, in all but the very rare cases, produced by force-feeding ducks and geese so that their livers blow up to ten times their normal size. The animals are usually confined to cages and often become too large to stand.
A victory that would ease the suffering of a small group of animals is nonetheless a victory and, as Michelle Pawliger of the Animal Welfare Institute told The Dodo, "When we can make changes for animals, then we're going to take the chance to do it."