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Monday, January 10, 2011

NCC gets it wrong - the ethics of foie gras vs. the ethics of industrial food

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I have a rant. It's been a long time brewing.

Food consumption and preparation are my passion. I freaking looooooooooove food. I love variety, I love exoticism, I love localism....basically, I derive large amounts of pleasure from food.

But in the back of my mind, I am acutely aware that the polished facade of my grocery store is really just a fresh hide over the rancid underbelly of industrial food production. Modern, factory-scale food production, frankly, sucks. It sucks for the animals involved. It sucks for the people involved. It sucks for the land and environment involved. It's an energy-sucking behemoth rife with suffering and horror.

Yes, I'm being dramatic, but I don't know that it's possible to over-dramatize this. When you eat factory-farmed meat, you are eating pain and suffering. The cheaper the meat, the more likely the unfortunate animal involved led a short, pain-filled, manure-covered life. I realize this may bother some people, but it's the truth. And people need to know that.

I talked about this in 2007, and I'll talk about it again in 2011....the only way you can be assured that your meat led a relatively content, well-treated life is if you buy it from a farmer yourself. I.e., if you bought it at Costco, a grocery store or pretty much any chain food outlet (fast food or not), your meat was probably factory farmed.

SO...this brings me to the current target off my ire....the National Capital Commission in Ottawa. Every year in Ottawa, we make the best of our freezing winters and the city throws a huge party called Winterlude. It's awesome. Skating on the world's longest skating rink, beautiful crisp clear winter days, ice sculptures, warm comforting food, etc. It's a great time.

The short story is that the NCC invited renowned chef Martin Picard (of Au Pied de Cochon and Food Network Canada fame) to put on a gala dinner for 400-some people in Gatineau's spectacular Museum of Civilization. Tickets sold out in a matter of hours. That's how excited people were to try some of this chef's famous dishes (which often feature foie gras). Ottawa Citizen food editor Ron Eade cites that Martin Picard's Montreal restaurant is the number one consumer of foie gras in North America.

Essentially, this guy is known for foie gras and people want to eat it up. In fact, they clamoured to eat it up (me, I was not interested as a) I do not personally like the taste of foie gras, and b) I can't imagine that eating mass-prepared banquet food could possibly compare to actually eating chef-prepared food). Anyway, people were clearly excited. The demand was absolutely there.

A few days later, the NCC officially launched Winterlude on a snowy December day...I was lucky enough to be at the launch for a non-food-related work thing. In front of the Chateau Laurier (where the launch was held), were a few snowy protesters with big signs. Whatever. There are ALWAYS foie gras protestors in Ottawa. I encountered them about 18 months ago when I visited Canvas for my birthday. For the most part, they are respectful, but get their point across.'d think that the overwhelming excitement of 400 near-instant sell-out tickets would drown out the weak mewls of these protestors. Right?

WRONG. The NCC asked Martin Picard to omit foie gras from his menu. All seemed well.

Except it wasn't. Behind the scenes, Picard, like any chef/artist with a shred of credibility and character, bowed out. If Ottawa wasn't interested in his food, the way he wanted to make it, essentially, Picard wasn't really interested in Ottawa.

I don't blame the man.

But I do blame the NCC. It is RIDICULOUS that they let a few protestors alter the focus of Winterlude's marquee event. ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS.

And now I'm going to get back to the point of my rant.....this article on Serious Eats about the physiology of ducks does a great job of explaining why gavage, the practice of tube-feeding ducks and geese to fatten up their livers, is not, in fact, the worst thing that can happen to an animal. The physiology of ducks is such that they can (and do) swallow enormous things. It would make me gag. It would make you gag. Really, it would make anyone but an accomplished porn star gag. But it doesn't make a duck gag and it doesn't make a goose gag...because they are not people. Ignoring a duck's unique physiology is nothing short of anthropomorphism.

I'm not saying all foie gras ducks and geese across the entirety of the globe are well-treated. I'm absolutely sure they are not. Especially in Europe, where there is more demand, and foie gras is less of an artisanal niche product, and more of a mass-consumed product.

But here in North America? Not so much. 90 per cent of our population does not even know what foie gras IS (okay, I made the stat up....but I'll stand by it!). We are not producing foie gras on an industrial scale. To bring things back to the example at hand, according to this article, Picard takes no small amount of care when selecting the source of his foie gras.

Bottom line, these foie gras protestors are barking up the wrong tree. If they are that serious about protecting the rights of mistreated animals, why not protest Pizza Pizza or Subway as major sponsors? With the caveat that I have not personally researched these food outlets, I'd be willing to bet money that there's a whole lot more cruelty in the pepperoni on your pizza, or the turkey breast on your sub than there is in the foie gras on the select plates of those who choose to consume it.

I just don't understand the focus on a small (mostly) artisanal product when the real problem is of a MASSIVE scale. As consumers, we absolutely should be asking more questions about the origins and treatment of our food. If a merchant cannot tell us, we should take our purchasing power elsewhere.

Current regulations in Canada require that all meat be processed in a federally-inspected facility. This sounds great....unless you're a small farmer who only has a small amount of livestock. And you don't live near a slaughterhouse. So now you have to transport your formerly content livestock to a far-away abattoir. And if you try to sell (or even give away) something you slaughtered yourself. Well, you just might find yourself arrested. And no, I'm not joking.

So this is a bit of a rambly rant. But my point is that I'm ticked off that the NCC caved because of a few protesters. Foie gras is not the problem. Industrial food production is the problem.

Some reading for ya:
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

Some watching for ya:
The Meatrix (short, free, online)

And that's it for me tonight. Time to go to bed, but now that I've got this off my chest, I'll sleep well, especially knowing that I'll have some Bearbrook Farm buffalo braising in my crockpot for dinner tomorrow.


kristen said...

Well put! I have always wondered why the protesters are so interested in these few overfed ducks instead of the countless factory farmed chickens or cows too.

I'm not the biggest foie gras fan, but if you do get the chance, do try Picard's foie gras made me a believer (and that's from someone who up until trying it didn't really like poutine either...)

PG said...

Good post! I really don't understand why the protesters are so adamant about this issue when there are several further-reaching food issues in society today. I'd give far greater support for a movement that targets major suppliers of factory-farmed meat than one that targets local restaurants/chefs who carefully source a niche product.

Here's a post about my experience with some of the protesters:

Mrs K said...

Great post!

Lucie said...

Thanks for your rant Leslie,
You're speaking on behalf of many frustrated citizens who secretely or not so secretely wish this city dared to evolve a little...
Bravo NCC! I have a suggestion for you: let's serve Beaver Tails for the 2012 Winterlude Opening Ceremony Dinner!
Here's my menu suggestion: Appetizer: Klik and Velveeta Tail with Miracle-Whip
Main course: Highliner Fishstick and Ketchup Tail
Dessert: Map-o-Spread & Pillsbury Dough Boy Apple Turnover Tail
And I would also substitute the wine pairing for a Tim Horton's beverage pairing, frankly. Much more representative of people around here!
Or even better, let's plan a great dinner featuring a world-famous chef, the most direct, controversial guy we can possibly find, ask him to host our dinner and then freak out when protesters everyone saw coming from thousands of miles away wave their posters around. Let's suddenly get nervous of public opinion, because the famous chef is about to prepare the food everyone associates him with, the stuff that's made him famous. Let's ask him to substitute the whole reason 400 tickets were sold within a few hours for something else! We could kindly and hypocritically ask him if he minds hosting the dinner as planned, because the event is to bring great publicity to our festival (and besides, refunding is a huge hassle) but let's just ask him if he would mind gearing away from what he usually cooks and see what he says. We could have him serve hot dogs instead! Or chicken liver paté! What's the big deal, all that matters is that he comes to town, right? The event will be full no matter what he cooks!

Pathetic and absurd you say? That's what I call world class beating around the bush! Of course Martin Picard decided to cancel. This reflects the exact opposite of who he is!

I would throw my hand in the fire that the following things were laid out on the table when the NCC approached Martin Picard about hosting the event:
1)Martin Picard, being the straightforward chef he is, would've logically made his conditions very clear from the get-go. No sugar coating!!
In other words: If Martin Picard accepted to come to Ottawa in the first place, this can only mean that a common ground was reached during initial negociations and that the NCC's early vision and proposals jived with what Martin does.
2)The NCC, who approached Martin Picard with the idea of creating a "Cabane a Sucre"-themed evening, logically asked him to "be himself" and to gather inspiration from things he prepares daily at his Cabane a Sucre Au Pied de Cochon in St-Benoit de Mirabel, which, duh, includes his benchmark product: FOIE GRAS!
In other words, the NCC is likely at the root of having foie gras on the menu in the first place! They simply changed their minds over a few protesters which've been around for as long as I can remember! This is so ridiculous! They even held a brainstorming meeting at Martin's sugar shack! Don't tell me they didn't have a chance to think things through before coming up with the final concept! Why even invite Martin Picard in the first place?
Duh! Of course Martin Picard's coming to town was going to instigate these protesters to come stomping on our winter wonderland! Anyone could've called it!

So why then, does a little activism come as such a surprise to the NCC that it has to change the dinner plans after telling Martin Picard to cook whatever it is he usually cooks?

Why then, does the NCC, who has just demonstrated a huge lack in event planning skills and sheer common sense, even get the honour of planning Winterlude events year after year?
It beats me!
That's the status quo I was talking about in the beginning Leslie!
I certainly hope paying guests decide to forfeit this event. Not to boycott Michael Smith; he has nothing to do with this whole mess! But to teach the NCC a lesson or two on professionalism and transparency.

Happy Winterlude all!

Anonymous said...

Please click on this link:

This is a report by Prof. Ian Duncan of the University of Guleph, leading animal welfare expert. This is an unbiased and scientific report with truths about foie gras production and the type of birds used to produce foie gras. With all respect, the report you posted is full of errors and untruths.

leslie @ definitely not martha said...

Thanks for the comments guys!

k - I love poutine, but I don't think I could do that to my body! OMG!

Psychgrad - thanks for sharing. That sounds pretty intense!

Lucie - you had posted 3 times, so I deleted the first two - hope you don't mind. Great comment and observations. LOL at Velveeta. That is a food that represents all that is wrong with the modern world. ;)

Anonymous - thanks for sharing the link to the report - I read it and found it very interesting. As always, I welcome debate and discussion on my blog.

Hilary said...

I don't really have an opinion on foie gras because I don't know much about the processing and I don't personally like it. But I do have an opinion on kowtowing to 8 fringe protestors. The NCC are such a bunch of idiots. Doubly so because they chose a chef whose specialty is foie gras and then asked him not to use it. Which is sort of like inviting Alice Waters and asking her to please not use local, seasonal produce...

And I agree with you - foie gras is a strange cause to champion over, say, battery farming.

Kareen Latour said...

Hey Leslie, great post!
You might be interested in reading La Presse on the topic.

sewa mobil said...

Nice article, thanks for the information.

old car parts said...

I think there is a strong point against the ethics of industrial food; packaged and junk food available in the market. Needless to go on explaining to each and everyone, it is unhealthy but popular.

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