I applaud New York for ethically ducking out of the foie gras game

Foie gras - lovely to eat, produced at great pain to birds, and from 2022, banned in New York

Foie gras - lovely to eat, produced at great pain to birds, and from 2022, banned in New York - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Foie gras will be banned in New York in three years which has started a big ethical food debate, says Andy Newman

I realise that his is not going to do anything for my 'man of the people' image, but today I want to talk about something which I have been thinking about a lot recently: foie gras.

Online food forums and discussion rooms all over the world have been much exercised over the last few days on the subject, after New York City Council last week passed legislation which will ban the sale of foie gras in the city from 2022.

Predictably, since the ban was announced, chefs and foodies alike have been squealing like… well, like a force-fed duck, claiming that the move is intended more as a swipe at the well-off and the expense account holder, rather than about animal welfare.

I'm afraid that is an argument which doesn't really wash.

At the risk of putting you off your breakfast, let me explain why. Most foie gras is made through a process called gavage, which essentially involves force-feeding a duck or goose through a tube stuck down its gullet, causing its liver to swell up to 10 times its normal size.

This means the unfortunate bird can barely walk, or breathe.

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Sadly for the bloated birds, the result is one of the tastiest foodstuffs known to man. Most food enthusiasts I know - and I include myself in this - are torn between their love of the rich, luxurious taste, and the guilt that is caused by the knowledge of how the dish got to our plates.

But in a world where the ethics of what we eat is increasingly front-stage, it's difficult to argue with those who want to see foie gras outlawed.

And I say that not as a militant meat-is-murder vegan, but as an enthusiastic carnivore. Much as I love the stuff, I cannot quarrel with its prohibition.

Now, you may be thinking that as you don't live in New York, and in all likelihood foie gras isn't likely to form part of your diet any time soon, why this is remotely relevant to you.

It's a fair question, but bear with me, because it illustrates a wider issue about the food we eat.

The fact is that many people who are disgusted by the notion of foie gras (whether they have ever tasted it or not) will quite happily go into their supermarket and buy a cheap chicken for the Sunday roast - a bird which in all likelihood will have spent its life being pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, and which has lived confined to a space not much bigger than a sheet of A4.

But because access to cheap food is an issue of democracy, concerns about how that food is produced take second place.

Is that right? If we think that animal welfare is important enough to be taken into consideration when it comes to legislating about what we can and cannot eat, then that should apply across the board.

Otherwise those who claim the New York ban is all about punishing the wealthy have a point.

If we are seriously concerned about how animals are treated in food production, that has to be an absolute, and not conditional on whether the end product is aimed at toffs or the masses.

I am not in a position to question the motives of the politicians who make decisions on such things, but you can't help wondering whether the fact that they would stand to lose millions of votes if they legislated against intensive chickens is part of the reason they chose to focus their righteousness against a food which most of their constituents will never eat.

We are at a crossroads when it comes to the ethics of what we eat. Whatever your view on Brexit, it is an undeniable fact that the EU has the strictest rules on animal welfare in food production on the planet. For better or for worse, we are in the process of uncoupling ourselves from those rules; what happens next will be important.

Perhaps we will decide to match our new, national regulations to those Gold Standard rules which will continue to apply in the EU - I certainly hope so.

But I can't help fearing that when faced with the realities of trying to negotiate trade deals with countries which are bigger and much more powerful than us, our politicians won't be able to resist loosening the regulations in order to get those deals over the line.

This is a debate we need to have urgently, and without the blind prejudice we have seen on both sides of the Brexit debate. If we cannot secure our animal welfare standards and our food safety, then we are in trouble.

This may have started with a rarefied debate about foie gras; but ultimately it affects us all.