Towards Ethical Foie Gras?

Often the source of our worries about eating animals and the basis of arguments against it seems to turn on the pain and suffering of the animal in question. With advances in biotechnology such as cloning and genetic manipulation it may at some point be possible to engineer animals that do not feel pain or suffer but still produce meat of the kind that we are accustomed to eating. Producing such animals on a large scale would significantly reduce the total amount of suffering and may enable us to eat meat with a clear conscience.

Douglas Adams famously raises this kind of issue in his book The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, where a cow does the rounds of the restaurant tables offering various pieces of itself, cooked in various different ways to the diners.

Similar arguments are often at work in arguments about the making of foie gras. Part of what seems objectionable in this case is the force-feeding of geese. 17 countries have banned the production of foie gras because of the cruelty associated with force-feeding.

Some part of a solution may be on the way. A news article in Nature discusses ghrelin, a hunger-inducing hormone. The article reports on attempts to use ghrelin to encourage cancer patients to eat. However it also cites new results published in Cell Metabolism that cautions against attempts to inhibit ghrelin in an attempt to tackle obesity. Interestingly these results show higher levels of activity in the striatum – a reward centre of the brain that contains dopamine receptors. Dopamine is associated with feelings of pleasure.

A side effect of this research is that it may help us with the ethics of the production of foie gras. Injecting geese with ghrelin may remove the need for force-feeding by encouraging them to over eat. They may enjoy over-eating if the connection with dopamine receptors holds in their case.

This is of course pure speculation but it does raise interesting questions about the kinds of arguments that we can use in debates about our treatment of animals. Since France is the largest producer and consumer of foie gras, this kind of research may be of most interest there.

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2 Responses to Towards Ethical Foie Gras?

  • Wayne Yuen says:

    But does this really make it ethical? Is it acceptable to manipulate an animal’s biology so that we can then satisfy our desires for foie gras? It may be that they experience more pleasure from overeating, but they may not be pleased from the negative effects of an overweight frame (this is just an uneducated musing… I really don’t know that much about goose biology to say one way or another).

  • Katherine says:

    Force-feeding is only one part of the cruelty of foie gras production. It is extremely unhealthy for ducks to ingest the amount of food necessary to make fatty liver (foie gras). When the ducks ingest that amount of food, their livers become diseased and they become too weak to walk and have difficulty breathing.

    Why not just eat food that is less disgusting and cruel?

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