Foie gras. Few foods have been quite so polarizing in recent years. But according to Michaela DeSoucey, author of the new book Contested Tastes: Foie Gras and the Politics of Food, the French delicacy-turned-animal-rights-flash-point is much more than just a source of intense debate.
DeSoucey, an assistant professor of sociology at North Carolina State University, who spent nearly a decade researching the culture and politics around foie gras in both France and the U.S., sees it as a useful lens on what she calls “gastropolitics.” We spoke with DeSoucey about the ethical and moral implications of this contested food, and what it was like to spend a decade documenting what she calls, “a clear case of reasonable people disagreeing.”
How did you start writing about foie gras?
I started writing about food in 2002, when there weren’t many sociologists looking at food outside of the agriculture realm. But I knew I wanted to study it from a scholarly angle.
At the time I barely knew what foie gras was. I had started studying the organic movement, and looking at how social movements become markets. I was thinking about restaurants as venues for the local food movement and I was living in Chicago, when foie gras hit the front page—literally. A week later, I visited my sister in France, where she was studying abroad, and I brought back a can of foie gras for a professor I had been joking with and I had a light bulb moment. I realized this would be a fantastic project, to look at all the different ways this food has become this touchstone of moral and political and cultural contention in two different countries.
What is the biggest message you hope your readers take away from the book?
What I hope I did in the book is highlight the ways that foie gras is more than a debate. It’s not just animal rights zealots on one hand and elitist gourmets on the other—it’s so much more complex than that. It can tell us a lot about what we consider to be moral in terms of what we eat, and how that has developed over time. And focusing on it merely as a debate lets us remain reluctant to take on the social structures that really do shape most of how what we eat is produced. It really does pit people against each other.
Because, 10 years later, I believe it’s a clear case of reasonable people disagreeing. Several people have contacted me to invite me to write click-bait-y pieces to put myself in the fight. But I turned them down because what I want to do is show that I actually respect both sides very much.
Can you say a little bit about the logistics of foie gras production? How does the modern practice of gavage compare to more traditional, artisanal practices (as featured in Dan Barber’s much-watched TED talk.)
This is where I think foie gras gets really interesting. If you talk to opponents, they lump it all together. [They believe] all foie gras production is extreme cruelty, pernicious, and pathological, no matter what kind of production you’re talking about. But I have been on 15 foie gras farms and I have seen a wide variety of production techniques, technologies, care being taken with the animals, and products.
It’s artisanal versus industrial, but there’s a spectrum. Some of the smaller farms did used the more modern techniques, and Hudson Valley Foie Gras [the only remaining producer in the U.S.] was one of the most well-run operations I saw. It was one of the cleanest operations, and one of the best smelling. And they use the old fashioned auger and funnel for hand-feeding.[In France], the biggest change over the last 50 years has been the move to industrial production and the vertically integrated supply chain. It’s now a multi-billion business. At the same time you have this artisanal industry—among the small farms that are left—being heralded by local governments, by the French state as these arbiters of heritage and tradition. In the meantimes, some of the French companies are now setting up facilities in China, and I don’t know what those look like because I haven’t visited them yet.
You write that by 2007, 90 percent of French foie gras production used industrial gavage machines, which allow one person to feed 800-1,000 ducks twice a day. At one farm you visited a farmer who hand-fed the geese, but it became clear that the funnel was used for as a “demo for visitors,” while there was a machine for daily use.
What was interesting about that particular farm is we were brought there by the marketing director of a foie gras company. Most of the artisanal farms in France are very visible. It’s the gaveurs who are providing livers for the large companies who are not visible.
You spent a lot of time hearing out both sides of this argument. What did you learn on each side?
I learned that there’s no single explanatory factor that can explain who opposes foie gras and who embraces it. Obviously if you are already an animal rights activist, you are not going to see foie gras as a great thing. But as you get into the culinary side of things, you have some chefs who immediately agreed with the activists, and some who took it off their menus and signed the petition because they just wanted to be left alone, and then there were chefs who pushed back because they saw themselves as the wrong target. These are the ones who see themselves as supporting sustainable ag, local food movements, bettering people’s knowledge of the food system, and they resisted being passed as a proxy for agribusiness, and couldn’t understand why they were the ones getting hate mail and death threats, and having their restaurants protested.
But a number of the activists I spoke to on the ground in Chicago were very reasonable. And the main anti-foie gras activist in France was very reasonable. I interviewed him several times over the years. I think that in many ways the animal rights and animal welfare organizations have a very reasonable point to make—that the way animals are raised for food is not great. I think a lot of what they’re doing for the most part is really important and great work and I don’t want to deny that at all.
How much foie gras is sold in the U.S. and how does that compare to the rest of the animal agriculture industry?
It’s tiny. It’s a $25 million a year industry or it was when Sonoma Foie Gras was still operating. Now it’s even smaller, especially when you think about the whole nature of the food industry. For a company like Butterball, Perdue, or Tyson, that’s a rounding error.
You say that some animal rights groups saw banning foie gras as a battle they could win in the short-term. But you found out that wasn’t necessarily the case. Can you talk about the long-term effect of the ban(s)?
Yes, they saw it as low-hanging fruit in the beginning. There were only two large producers in the country—and since then one of them has closed down. I think that what the activists did by choosing it as a symbol to rally around actually led to a lot of unintended consequences that hurt their argument and alienated a lot of potential allies in the process.
The bans allowed some consumers to check a box in their minds, and say, “I don’t eat foie gras,” even if they never really ate it in the first place. It allows them to alleviate their conscience. At the same time, if you tell people that they can’t eat something, that often has the unintended consequence of increasing demand, especially as more people are calling themselves foodies, and more people are interested in adventurous or “exotic” eating.
In Chicago, a ban was instituted in 2006 and rescinded in 2008. But by 2009, there were more restaurants serving foie gras than there had been before the ban. It used to just be associated with super elite French restaurants, then all of a sudden it became a topping on burgers and hot dogs and it started to show up on menus all over the country. It’s the classic American “don’t tell me what I can’t do” trope.
You’ve said that eliminating production in the U.S. could result in more foie gras being imported from (less transparent) international sources. Can you say more about that?
The activists have been filing lawsuits with the goal to financially drain the producers or annoy them so much that they just close their doors. And no one in their right mind would set up a new foie gras farm in the U.S. today.
So what’s going to happen then if you have no farms and a high level of consumer demand? There used to be 19 different French foie gras companies that exported to the U.S., but the U.S. Department of Agriculture kept changing the rules, so most of them of gave up. But a few companies set up farms in Canada to get around it [via NAFTA]. They use the industrial, vertical method with the hydraulic machines, and individual cages for the birds. And now you also have a couple of these farms setting up farms in China, mostly to supply the East Asian metropolises that have a lot of money like Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong—where European cultural products are highly valued as a status symbol.
So I see restaurants here either importing it from Canada or Chinese farms. And that could be opening the door for production practices that would affect people, animals, and the environment in a way that would be deemed worse by a lot of people. So the question them becomes: Do you try to regulate it or eliminate it? Eliminating it will create a void that will get filled somehow.
Photos courtesy of Micheala DeSoucey.