Saturday, October 22, 2011

An open letter to a customer on the subject of foie gras

I received a letter today on the subject of foie gras. A customer chose not to come in to my restaurant because I have Foie Gras on my menu. This letter is quite timely, as the debate is heating up in California. I wrote her a lengthy response, which I decided to post. Some of the themes in my response you will see reflected in previous blogs. I have posted a link to a letter from Incanto on the subject of foie gras.

This customer chooses to eat a vegan diet. For those of you don't know this about Bistro 7 1/4, we do an excellent job of accommodating vegan clients.

Her letter:

Dear Chef Alex,

I was recently disappointed to find out that your restaurant menu features foie gras. I'm sure you are aware the controversy behind this dish, but I would just like to provide you with some further information regarding the production of foie gras, in hopes that you will seriously consider removing this item from your menu, and set an example for other restaurants who also feature this cruel dish.

Ducks and geese used to produce foie gras are kept in tiny cages or sheds and have pipes jammed (roughly and painfully) down their throats three times per day so that grain and fat can be pumped into their stomachs, causing their liver to bloat (about 10 times its size!). The birds suffer a great deal of pain as well as injuries and infection in the process. The birds often develop foot infections, kidney necrosis, bruised and broken bills and tumours in their throats so that this unnecessary 'delicacy' can be eaten. Production of Foie Gras is so cruel that it has actually been banned in California and force feeding has been banned in several countries around the world. As a vegan and animal rights activist I wish that all meat could removed from the menu as cruelty and pain is involved in all farming methods. I understand that your clientele eat meat and the majority are neither vegetarian nor vegan, so all I am asking is that you please consider removing the foie gras from the menu. It is cruel, inhumane, painful and unnecessary. In fact, I know many people (omnivore) who refuse to eat at any restaurant that serves foie gras, so I believe removing foie gras from the menu would have only positive effects.

Here is a video exposing the cruelty and torture involved in the production of foie gras, if you are interested in seeing exactly what goes on:

Thank you for your consideration,

my letter:

Thank you for your letter. I appreciate hearing your concerns.

I feel that any time you make a decision about what to eat, you make a series of ethical choices. Are you content with factory farmed pork or do you seek out pastured pork? Do you eat meat or stick to vegetable proteins? Do you buy organic from california or uncertified produce from down the road? Farmed fish or wild? None of these decisions are simple.

You can buy organic produce from california, but it is wrapped in plastic and shipped 200 km in diesel trucks. And do we ever consider the plight of the migrant workers that harvest the produce?

As a chef and restaurant owner I daily make ethical choices about the food I serve. Sometimes, for practical or financial reasons, I fall short of the standards I set for myself. This being said, I think I do a very good job of buying sustainable fish, locally and humanely raised meats, naturally farmed or organic produce, and I feel the need to support small local producers.

But beyond that, I feel it is also my customers place to make ethical choices about their own dinners. I oppose most attempts to restrict or regulate our freedom to make those choices. Most of my customers enjoy meat, so I am happy to provide this. Some choose to only eat meat from small, local producers that are humanely raised, I do my best to provide that. Some of my customers choose to eat no food from animal sources, I feel I do a very good job of providing food for those customers.

As for Foie Gras, I feel there is a lot of misinformation and sensationalism. The language used colours the debate. No one says that the ducks an geese are not force fed, but the anti-foie movement will colour the description by saying the birds are "painfully force-fed. There is little evidence to support the claim that the birds feel pain in this process. The videos that the anti-foie activists use are quite horrific, but these videos are made to shock. The process of force-feeding happens for a very short period of time and is very quick the rest of the time, these birds live quite peaceful and happy lives. Ducks and geese being raised for foie are free range and are treated better than any factory chicken. Most egg producers will raise their laying hens 3 to a cage, in cages barely big enough for one of them.

But ultimately, the choice to eat foie or not to eat foie lies with my customers. If my guests feel the same outrage that you do, or are simply turned off by the idea of foie, then they will stop ordering it. If my customers stop ordering foie gras, I will stop supplying it. My menu is filled with many great choices. If you choose to not eat foie gras, you are welcome to make that choice. If you choose not to meat at all, you are welcome to make that choice as well. But please remember, that even those who choose to eat vegan are still faced with many ethical food choices.

I just received a link to a blog posting on this very subject. This is from Incanto restaurant in the San Francisco. Incanto is probably on the forefront of sustainable and ethical dining in the US. Their position is interesting and well researched. It is worth a read, if only to further the debate. Check out

Again, I thank you for your letter. I feel that food, and the choices we make around food, is not something we should take lightly. Healthy debate and discussion is always a good thing.


She responded to my letter with the following:

Dear Alexander,

Thank you for your reply. I wholeheartedly agree with you that one makes an ethically driven decision whenever they choose to purchase or eat food. Meat vs. vegetable, local vs. imported, etc. However, the truth is that the majority of people do not know or understand exactly what is involved in bringing their meal to their plate and are not aware of many of the issues such as animal abuse and torture, environmental damage, etc. Reform needs to start somewhere, which is why I chose to write to all restaurants in Winnipeg serving foie gras. It is a small start - I understand that removing all meat from your menu would definitely affect your clientle, but foie gras seemed like a small enough opportunity to make some change and prevent some suffering. Before someone can make an informed ethical decision, they need to know the facts, and sadly most don't. I don't think the people who choose to order foie gras off your menu are monsters who would knowingly support the gruesome torture of innocent creatures. I think that they are individuals who maybe aren't aware of the exact processes and vast amount of suffering and abuse involved in the procurement of their meal. If someone had to sit down and watch beginning to end the process behind foie gras and then eat the end result, I highly doubt that most people would (on the same note, I feel that if most people actually witnessed or knew completely what goes on in a factory farm, most people would be vegan).

I understand that business is ultimately about profit and customers, but animal abuse of any kind is never tolerable and I do disagree with your stance on providing this option to the customer as long as they keep buying it. Although your customers may dictate specific tastes and demand in your restaurant, ultimately as the restaurant owner and chef, the menu is up to you and the decisions you make as to what goes on and is removed from the menu is completely up to you. As an animal rights activist I know the importance of standing up for what you believe in and if no one ever did that - or educated people on the implications of their decisions when they are not aware of them and therefore able to make an informed ethical decision - no progress would ever be made. It's never good to take an all-or-nothing attitude. We can never make the perfect ethical decision ALL of the time - but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't do everything we can to try to make the best ones we are able to in any given situation. Because you serve meat on your menu which means the suffering of millions of animals, doesn't lessen the impact of a simple and single decision like choosing not to support one form of cruelty (foie gras).

Thank you for the link - I did check it out. I have heard that argument in a few different articles and books before - that because animals are not physiologically the same as humans we should not anthropomorphize them. Equality doesn't mean treating two beings exactly the same (we would never allow a duck to vote because they are not capable of reasoning) - it means viewing their life and wellbeing as equally important to another's. The thing is, we cannot ever fully have a sense of how any creature other than ourselves feels pain. I can't even be sure that you feel pain in the same way I do - I have never felt it from your point of view and therefore I cannot say I know what it would feel like. But, since we do not know for a fact that animals do feel pain in the same way we do, we need to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they do. To assume otherwise would be cruel. I find little validity in the statement that tube-fed birds in foie gras production appear "unstressed". While in each and every case it may not necessarily be the "tube" that is the thing causing pain and suffering to these animals, certainly having one's liver expanded 10 times it's size and suffering infections, breaks and bruises is undeniably painful. Farms and production sites are all about turning a profit - very little to no care is taken in ensuring that each individually animal is healthy, comfortable and not suffering - that's not profitable. I'm not saying all farms operate exactly the same, but largely most farms do not have the resources to ensure the wellbeing of each animal. I recently wrote to the Minister of Agriculture on two particular foie gras production sites in Canada - birds were witnessed choking on their own blood, suffering infections and broken bills, unable to move, kicked and thrown about like pieces of garbage and beaten to death by being pounded against the ground while fully conscious. No one can even try and tell me that these birds are "unstressed" and pain-free!

You mentioned that the videos made by anti-foie gras activists are made to shock, but unfortunately they are shocking because what is witnessed is shocking! There are many large organizations who produce these videos; they are not contrived or set-up - they are actual footage. I'm not sure where you heard that the birds live painless, peaceful lives - their lives are anything but painless and peaceful. If you look up information and laws regarding "free-range" you will see that the term actually means very little. The term is not clearly defined in Canada and is often open for interpretation amongst farmers - a small piece of dirt for animals to run around in, a window in a shed - the birds often live in filthy conditions with a variety of bacteria and parasites - I have read a number of studies done on "free-range" animals in both Canada and the U.S and am disappointed that so many are deceived by that term actually denotes. Most people think that free-range looks like the idyllic farm - red barn with animals happily grazing and running around the field, but that's not the way it is. Please do not think that free-range means peaceful - it is not.

Anyway, yes, debate is always healthy and welcome! I did receive your request to post my email on your blog and I did check out your blog (I was very happy to see you take an interest in vegetarianism and veganism - it is such a peaceful way to live and I commend you for that!). You have my permission to post my initial email to you on your blog, but only if this reply is posted as well and my last name is omitted. Also, if you could send me the link to your posting that would be great!

If you want to reply to this email that is ok, but I will not reply back again. I have contacted quite a few restaurants and am anticipating on replying to all of them at least once. I just don't have the time to keep a debate going with each one (as fun as it would be!). I do really want to thank you for taking the time to read my email and for responding - I'm sure you are very busy, but it does mean a lot to me :) I have heard wonderful things about your restaurant and your food, and I also do appreciate you accommodating vegans and vegetarians on your menu :)

Thank you and have a great day!