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April 30, 2006

Still Angry

Dominic Armato (Sausage courtesy of Hot Doug's, legislative ban courtesy of Joe Moore and the Chicago City Council)
Yeah, it took four days.

I'm still angry. And it embarrasses me that of all the things I could be angry about, a little duck liver is what got me. But it's an unusual combination of passion and principle for me, added to the fact that I invested in this one. I educated myself. I wrote letters. I called people. And then a unanimous vote went the other way.

For those who might have missed it, the city of Chicago has banned the sale of foie gras by all food purveyors within the city limits, effective sometime in June. So in an effort not to go overboard with the rant, here are the reasons why this is ridiculous, in concise fashion:

  • The assertion that gavage (the process by which ducks and geese are force fed) is painful and torturous to the animals is borne of anthropomorphization, and completely unsupported by all scientific evidence is, at best, very weakly supported by the very limited available scientific evidence, AND is heavily outweighed by other more compelling scientific evidence that suggests the contrary.. (* - See below).
  • The American Veterinary Medical Association, the veterinary (though unrelated) version of the AMA, which is comprised of scientists who have devoted their lives to animal welfare, researched this very subject. Not only did their animal welfare committee unanimously decide not to draft a resolution condemning gavage, but they also reported that in conducting their research on the subect, they determined that not only was there no indication that foie gras fowl were being tortured, but that the birds were, in fact, generally very well cared for, and certainly treated much better than the chickens at factory farms that produce the bulk of the nation's meat supply. In fact, members of the committee went so far as to say that "force feeding" was a misleading and prejudicial term, and suggested that "tube feeding" be used instead, since gavage very closely resembles the tube feeding techniques used by large numbers of veterinarians.
  • Given the manner in which most meat in the United States is produced, the argument that foie gras is cruel but chicken, pork, veal, beef and fish are okay is the height of hypocrisy.
  • To therefore single out and ban foie gras because it's a rare food that nobody eats and only "rich people" can afford is both bullying and classist (and as a side note, Hot Doug's sausage, pictured above and since renamed the "Joe Moore", costs $7... that's rich folks food, all right).
  • Given the precedent that the fine city council of Chicago has set for what constitutes cruel and illegal meat production, those who wish to ban all meat products can now argue that to be consistent we must ban almost all supermarket and restaurant meats throughout the United States... and they'll be absolutely right.
Of course, the last won't happen. Chicken isn't going away anytime soon. There may be a few members of the city council who believe that it's morally wrong to eat animals, and that all meat production in the US is cruel and should be illegal. They'd be wrongheaded in pursuing this ban, but at least they'd be consistent. But this isn't what most members of the city council believe. To vote for the ban on foie gras and then buy a chicken at the local supermarket goes beyond inconsistent. It's hypocrisy, plain and simple. So all the city council has shown is that they don't have the courage to simply say what they all know... that the arguments they're referring to in the defense of their vote could be made for all of the meats they eat, and the only reason they didn't vote no is because they were too lazy/cowardly/sleazy to do the right thing.

I count my alderman, Manuel Flores, among them.

I give Mr. Flores full points for speaking to me. Twice, in fact. We talked for a good 15-20 minutes both before and after the final approval of the ban. In our first conversation, he seemed genuinely concerned. He talked about the fact that he considered himself a normal meat eater. He was aware of the fact that all animals, in the process of being turned into meat, are put through processes that many would consider wrong or inhumane or torturous. He seemed concerned about a potential slippery slope. He conceded that he had never worked with birds or visited a foie gras farm. And he stressed, more than anything else, that he felt it was ridiculous that the city council was even considering such a piece of legislation. What I learned from my first conversation with Mr. Flores is that he is very intelligent.

Unfortunately, this only served to clarify what I learned about him in our second conversation... that he is a coward. When he called back, I wasn't certain where he voted. The Chicago papers reported a unanimous vote, the New York Times reported a 48-1 vote, and I also understood that the vote may not have been a full roll call, but rather a voice vote. So I decided not to ask at first, and just wait and see what he had to say. So I asked him what happened. He initially tried to write it off as the unfortunate result of procedural issues. He told me about how, well, it passed the committee, and for something not to be made into law after it passes committee, something "really big" has to happen, and they felt that they had more important things to do than go through the the process of trying to stop it, many of which he tried to tell me about, and none of which were the topic of our conversation. I expressed amazement that their default position, when they felt that a bill wasn't worth their time and attention, was to PASS it rather than SKIP it. So I pressed him. I wanted to know where he stood. And he told me that with the materials he was given, he thought that foie gras production was, in fact, inhumane.

This was where he tried to assure me that there was no fear of a slippery slope. He wouldn't support a ban on any other meat products. He told me all about how he eats meat... how he likes meat. This is where I told him that this bothers me more. If he had told me that he felt most meat production in the US was cruel and should be banned and that he had an opportunity to work on the first step, I'd still be angry that he'd supported the bill, but at least his position would have been consistent. But I told him that to anybody who was even moderately educated in meat processing, as I knew he had been, to ban foie gras and then go eat chicken was hypocritical and stunk of ugly politics... banning something simply beacuse it's easy and there aren't enough people who care enough to object strenuously enough. Votes won't be lost over foie gras. His response was interesting. At this point, he stopped using the word "inhumane".

He said that he felt foie gras was "different".

So now I wanted to know. I wanted to know if he really, truly believed that there was something exceptional, something unusual about foie gras production. I wanted to see if maybe there was some chance he was acting on principle, however misguided I believed it to be. I wanted to know if he really believed that foie gras was "different", or if he was just using that as a crutch to excuse his vote. So I asked if he had, in fact, received and read the paperwork from the AVMA that I'd sent to him. I reminded him that the animal welfare committee of the AVMA, a scientific institution comprised of experts and scientists in the field of animal anatomy, all of whom had devoted their lives to the well-being of animals, had said that the foie gras fowl they observed were extremely well cared for, that there was no scientific or even anecdotal evidence that gavage was torturous (or even uncomfortable), and that the foie gras fowl were, in fact, treated far better than most chickens in the US. He said yes, he was aware of the AVMA's report. So I asked him if he disagreed with the AVMA.

He wouldn't say.

Over the next five minutes, I tried three or four times, rephrasing the question, trying to determine if he simply felt the AVMA was wrong... simply believed in his heart of hearts that they were mistaken. I asked him if he thought the AVMA was wrong. I asked if he felt they were mistaken. I asked if he felt they were incorrect. He wouldn't do it. He would only say that he thought foie gras was "different". He would say that yes, he thought foie gras production was worse than chicken or veal or pork production and worthy of a ban while the others weren't. But then when reminded that the AVMA had concluded that this wasn't the case, he couldn't simply say, "well, I think they're wrong."

In some ways, I understand this reaction. Having already stated that he didn't see any problem with eating chicken, he was in the position of having to admit that either he believed the largest and most respected organization of animal scientists in the United States was dead wrong, or that he'd just voted to approve a bullshit piece of legislation. The only remaining question was whether he actually disagreed with the AVMA and didn't want to admit it, or was simply sticking to the easy talking point of "foie gras is different". His lack of willingness to simply say he thought the AVMA was wrong told me most of what I needed to know, but there was something else he said that clinched it for me. Shortly after telling me that he thought foie gras was "different", he said to me:

"Well, perhaps this wasn't the Chicago City Council's finest hour..."

He then proceeded to assure me that there would be no slippery slope. That my assertions that he had just set precedent... real PRECEDENT... were unfounded. He assured me that reasonable minds would prevail in the event that broader legslation was introduced.

And that was it for me. I told him that it wasn't intended as a personal attack, but that I was angry with him, I was angry that he had supported this ban, that anything more I had to say wouldn't be constructive, and I thanked him for his time.

I'm no mindreader. But to me, all of this says the following. I suspect that Manny Flores finds foie gras production distasteful. Many people do when faced with the reality that their meat products don't just magically appear under cellophane or on a sandwich. I also suspect that Manny Flores was (rightfully) annoyed that the city council had to deal with this. And I suspect that he knew full well that in any rational discussion, the assertion that foie gras was somehow substantively different was completely unsupportable. But I think that, as a politician, he felt that banning foie gras simply wasn't that big a deal, and that it was easier to just let it go and throw Joe Moore a bone and deal with a small handful of annoyed foodies and restauranteurs than the highly organized animal rights activists that he told me had been banging down his door. In short, I suspect that even though his brain told him this piece of legislation had absolutely no business being passed, he decided to simply take the easy way out.

Of course, I don't know the man. This is just my impression. But my impressions get a vote, and they don't vote for cowards.

UPDATE : I wrote this while quite angry, and there's one phrase that I think was more definitive than it should have been. I don't want to be guilty of the same exaggeration and selective referencing that characterizes much of the anti-foie argument. To say that the assertion that gavage is torturous is "completely unsupported by all scientific evidence" is not accurate. There is a small amount of weak evidence around which this case has been made. So to amend, the assertion that gavage is torturous to ducks and geese is very weakly supported by the very limited available scientific evidence, AND is heavily outweighed by other more compelling scientific evidence that suggests the contrary. That, I think, is a more accurate way of saying what I'm trying to say. Bottom line, to present the belief that gavage is torturous to ducks and geese as scientific fact is, at best, wishful thinking, and at worst, misleading and dishonest, and I make the change because I don't want to be guilty of the same myself.

Comments

I've been so caught up in second amendment stuff that this completely escaped me until today, almost four months too late. I've been in touch with Mr. Flores about the Big Box ordinance and found him to be a man of no personal conviction. It appears to me in my dealings with him and his office that he's greasing the wheels for a future political career insted of doing what is right. You said "But my impressions get a vote, and they don't vote for cowards." And to that I say Amen.

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