Animals That Love Pain: How Factory Farming Explains Abuse

In a recent article in the New York Times, a defender of practices necessary to obtain foie gras argued that ducks run up to be overfed


Long gone are the days when defenders of factory farming argued that farm animals simply aren't capable of suffering, or are too stupid to even know they're suffering, as was sometimes self-servingly claimed. Today's proponents of animal agribusiness instead acknowledge that of course they're concerned about preventing animal suffering, but that our nation's billions of chickens, turkeys, pigs, and other farm animals could hardly be happier.

We saw this phenomenon in a recent New York Times article when someone who opposes a law banning force-feeding ducks and geese for foie gras was quoted as arguing that the practice is something the birds actually look forward to.

The article was about California's overwhelmingly passed law banning the force-feeding of fowl, and the opponent of the law assured readers concerned about animal cruelty, "I've seen the videos, and everyone says the same thing: they all seem to run up to be fed."

Let's back up. Foie gras, French for fatty liver, is a so-called delicacy produced by force-feeding ducks or geese several times per day until their livers become diseased and enlarge up to ten times their normal size. Most people wouldn't want to eat any part of a diseased animal, but in the case of foie gras, it's the diseased organ itself on which consumers dine.

Now, back to the claim that the ducks "run up to be fed." Watching a short video taken by Compassion Over Killing during a public tour of Hudson Valley Foie Gras (the largest foie gras factory farm in the U.S.) shows that far from running to their abusers with mouths agape, ducks are actually huddled in the corner and must be grabbed and dragged in order to be force-fed. It's hard to understand how anyone could watch such a video and not applaud the landslide vote in the California legislature to provide a reasonable phase-out and eventually bring the practice to an end.

Even many foie gras consumers acknowledge that the practice isn't pleasant. One of them is Mark Caro, a Chicago Tribune writer. In his book, The Foie Gras Wars, Caro visits Sonoma Foie Gras, a producer in California where a worker was force-feeding birds who were "huddled in the corner of the pen." That worker tells Caro that "they know what's going to happen and they don't like to be grabbed." Later on in his tour of the facility, Caro writes "upon [the worker's] appearance, they huddled in the corner and looked away, resisting the catch without getting wild.... A bunch of them were panting."

It's not just common sense that birds don't want to be force-fed several times a day. The EU's Scientific Veterinary Committee reviewed the science on the issue and found that indeed the force-feeding is detrimental to the animals' welfare, and that mortality rates for force-fed ducks and geese are many times the norm. This is what led so many EU countries to ban foie gras. And Israel -- formerly the fourth largest producer of foie gras -- banned the practice when the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the routine force-feeding violates the country's preexisting prohibition on animal torture.

Even the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau considered the topic and ruled that D'Artagnan's -- the largest distributor of foie gras -- claims of humane treatment were not backed up and should be discontinued. These are among the reasons famed chefs like Wolfgang Puck refuse to use foie gras.

But none of this stops the foie gras industry's promoters from making their "humane-washing" claims. It brings to mind other sectors of animal agribusiness that defend obviously inhumane practices. Whether it's veal producers locking their calves in tiny crates and feigning concern that they might suffer if allowed to move, or pork producers who cage breeding pigs so they can't even turn around and assure us that the pigs like it this way, there's no shortage of absurd attempts to explain away farm animal abuse.

Common sense and clear science are hard things to combat, but factory farming's purveyors will continue to refine their messaging to try and defend the indefensible. It won't do them much good in the long run. Through all of this, one thing is clear: The more Americans learn about what happens to farm animals -- whether on factory farms producing foie gras, eggs, veal, or pork -- the greater the call for reform will be.

Image: Steve Estvanik/Shutterstock.