Foie gripe: My mention of Hudson Valley Foie Gras in the November 7 Tante Louise review, "Fedded Bliss"--particularly my use of the word "humane" in conjunction with the duck liver I'd eaten--prompted reader Amy Crews to request more information about Hudson Valley and its purportedly "humane" foie gras. "Being aware of the cruelty involved in producing pate, please elaborate on your reference," Crews wrote. "Some of my best friends are chefs, and they love the stuff--I'd like to offer an alternative to their discriminating palates."
Well, so would I, but whether Hudson Valley is indeed a viable alternative is a matter muddier than a marsh. All the literature I'd read on Hudson Valley, located in New York's Catskills, depicted its product as more humane than the stuff from France--the USDA does not allow this country to import fresh foie gras, only canned products such as pates--but it turns out the methods used at Hudson Valley are no different from those employed anywhere else.
So the real question is whether those methods are indeed cruel to the ducks and geese who lose their livers (and lives) in the name of gastronomy. According to Hudson Valley part-owner Izzy Yanay, mistreating the animals in any way is not smart business. "Any duck expert will tell you that stressing the ducks will make them unable to digest, which means you get no liver," Yanay says. "It's counter-productive."
In case you're not familiar with foie gras and how it's made, here's a little primer: Any waterfowl can produce foie gras, including swans, but ducks and geese are the most common. Waterfowl have the unique ability to take any extra food they are given and process it into fat, which in a human might go to, say, the thighs, but in waterfowl gets stored in and around the liver. On a foie gras farm such as Hudson Valley, ducks are hand-fed starting at about thirteen weeks. "Hand-fed" means a long metal pipe is stuck down their throats and they are "encouraged" to accept grain made from high-quality corn. Yanay says he uses "tiny, gentle women" for the feeding instead of "big, hairy guys" because he wants the feedings to be as stress-free for the ducks as possible. "I'm telling you, the duck has to be happy to produce," he adds. After several weeks of corn-loading, the ducks are taken into a building where they are "stunned" by an electric current, a nicety Hudson Valley added for "humane reasons, because it knocks them senseless," Yanay says. Then their throats are slit, they're bled instantaneously "so the livers stay white," and finally, they're divvied up. (Hudson Valley uses the whole animal for assorted purposes.)
Over the phone, Yanay mentions several times that his company encourages people to come visit the farm and watch the feedings. "Everyone who comes here, they see that the ducks don't run from the feeders, they come right up to them for their food. Would a tortured animal do that? I'll tell you what--you try to walk up to a duck who's not used to humans. It will run from you," he says. "People watch us quickly stick that pipe into the ducks and then they say, 'That's it? That's nothing.'" He adds that he's sure he gets regular visits from organizations such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and has no problem with that. "Some would like to think that this is a horrifying practice," he says. "But the only bad thing I do to the ducks is kill them for my profit." He's been in the business for fourteen years, he adds, although as Hudson Valley only since 1991--it was "called something else before that."
Just for kicks, I pulled up PETA's home page on the Web. There I found the usual horror stories, but a "factsheet" on foie gras caught my attention. In it was a detailed account of a foie gras farm in New York named Commonwealth Enterprises, which in 1991 was accused by PETA investigators of some nasty duck handling. The list of offenses included "filthy conditions," ducks with torn necks (one so bad the bird leaked water when it drank) and ducks that could hardly walk and were "listless" and "close to death." The local police filed charges against Commonwealth, the PETA page noted, adding that "the district attorney later gave in to pressure by agriculture groups, withdrew the criminal charges, and persuaded a judge to seal the file." According to PETA, Commonwealth now does business as--you guessed it--Hudson Valley.
While Yanay admits he initially was an owner of Commonwealth, he says he had a falling out with his partners, who demoted him to employee status and then fired him just before the PETA raid. "They had sent a spy in," Yanay says of PETA. "In my opinion, the photos were doctored. I still maintain that treating animals poorly is not conducive to obtaining foie gras."
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The Sullivan County DA's office ultimately dropped the charges against Commonwealth (but declines to say why). Two years later, Yanay and his current partner in Hudson Valley bought the company.
PETA spokeswoman Yona Gregory denies that the Commonwealth photos were doctored. "Forget that Commonwealth was way over the line as far as cruelty goes," she adds. "The way foie gras is produced, with force-feeding and mass execution, is cruel by nature."