Sunday, 6 July 2014

Does India's Foie Gras Ban Signal Return of Food Xenophobia, Or A Serious Concern for Animal Rights?

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

THE Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) has banned the import of foie gras into India under an order that was published in the Gazette of India Extraordinary on July 3. Animal Equality, an international animal rights group, at once issued a statement saying its campaign against foie gras, which focused on gavage, the method of force feeding corn to ducks and geese to 'engorge' (bloat up) their livers, had influenced the DGFT's decision.
The voices against foie gras are getting louder, but its
critics have not been able to garner substantial scientific
evidence in support of their shrill opposition to the delicacy.
By listening only to animal rights activists, the DGFT may have shut its ears to voices of reason. The official action, moreover, raises a bigger concern. Is it one of those periodic expressions of food xenophobia, which led, for instance, to a ban on lamb imports for 12 years before it was finally lifted some time back because of the singular efforts of the Australian High Commission? Or have our decision-makers been overcome by a serious concern for animal rights? The entire non-vegetarian diet is based on some form or other of cruelty to animals. Will the DGFT keep banning imports of meats, meat products and offal whenever some animal rights group or the other raises an objection? If such actions keep yielding the results desired by their protagonists, there may come a time when we'll be denied our daily glass of milk because a growing number of people believe that denying a calf its mother's milk is sheer cruelty.
OK, this may be an extreme argument, but bans such as the one just put in place will only encourage unscrupulous operators from selling foie gras under other names. Certain Chinese entities, in fact, are said to have mastered this rather fine art! It's just like our authorities are prepared to turn a blind eye on beef being served in hotels and restaurants, despite the ban on cow slaughter and on the imports of beef and beef products, just because the 'offending' meat is listed as tenderloin!
The use of foie gras has been embroiled in controversies since the late 1990s, although, unlike the shrill animal rights, there's thin evidence to prove that the birds suffer as much as their defenders claim they do. As I gathered from Wikipedia, although the 89-page report of the European Union's Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare on 'Welfare Aspects of the Production of Foie Gras in Ducks and Geese', adopted on December 16, 1998, concluded that gavage is "detrimental to the welfare of the birds", it could find only "small" evidence of any injury caused by the feeding method.
The American Veterinary Medical Association's House of Delegates, the accrediting body of veterinary medicine in the US, was more categorical after a series of hearings and farm visits. "Limited peer-reviewed, scientific information is available dealing with the animal welfare concerns associated with foie gras production, but the observations and practical experience shared by HOD members indicate a minimum of adverse effects on the birds involved," the accrediting body said in 2006. The view, predictably, is shared by foie gras producers. Michael Ginor, owner of Hudson Valley Foie Gras and author of Foie Gras ... A Passion, claims his birds come to him to be fed and says this is important because "a stressed or hurt bird won't eat and digest well or produce a foie gras."
Nevertheless, Wikipedia informs us, the animal rights activism on foie gras has had a deleterious effect on its production and consumption across the world. The number of European countries producing foie gras has halved to five -- Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Hungary and Spain -- since 1997, because of production bans in place in 14.
California has made the production and consumption of foie gras illegal, so has Argentina, and Israel has been seeing a groundswell against farms producing it. Chicago's City Council, on other hand, pushed through a ban, but withdrew it in 2008 after the city's then mayor, Richard M. Daley, rubbished it as the "silliest law" every passed. Chefs, too, have been divided by foie gras. Anthony Bourdain is a fan of it, but top chefs on both sides of the Atlantic, such as Wolfgang Puck and the late Charlie Trotter in America and Albert Roux in the U.K., have  voluntarily dropped foie gras from their menus.
The jury on foie gras is divided, so a ban on its imports is not just a cruel blow to its aficionados, who like to have it in any which way possible, but also a move that smacks of irrational decision making being given a pseudo-humanitarian gloss.