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The foie gras row - a liver runs through it

PEOPLE for the Ethical Treatment of Animals recently launched a contest for chefs around the world to create a recipe for a vegetarian alternative foie gras. Aubrey Buckingham chews over the controversy

While wildlife activists condemn the supposed brutality of the Chinese approach to delicacies such as shark's fin, the French favorite foie gras is not spared the spotlight either.

In an attempt to raise awareness for what it considers to be a cruel practice, the animal rights organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, recently launched a contest for chefs around the world to create a recipe for a vegetarian alternative to the ubiquitous dish. Dubbed "The Fine Faux Foie Gras Challenge," the winning entry, which will be assessed for palatability as well as similarity in taste and texture to the real McCoy, will be awarded US$10,000.

The winning chef must also agree to feature the creation in his regular menu.

The Chinese market is likely to welcome such an alternative, according to PETA Asia-Pacific Senior Campaigner Ashley Fruno, as local consumers already enjoy a myriad of mock meats. He believes while restaurants may not switch to the alternative - should one be found - immediately, it will be "the first nail in the coffin of this cruel industry."

The outcry over foie gras stems from the process of gavage (force feeding) geese or ducks till their livers are engorged six to 10 times the normal size. Feed is packed into a filter, which is then pushed through a tube inserted into the bird's esophagus (modern pumps take only two seconds to do this); the result is a rich, unctuous luxury dish enjoyed by gourmands across the globe.

Animal rights activists argue that not only does this process injure the birds, but the fattening of the livers also causes them great distress.

"Increasing awareness about the cruelty animals suffer on factory-farms - and public outcry over the atrocity of foie-gras in particular - has ripened the market for a vegetarian alternative to this grotesque dish," he says. "Conscientious diners who cannot stand the thought of ducks and geese being force-fed up to four pounds of food per day so that their engorged, diseased, livers might be served on a plate, still deserve to enjoy traditional cuisine. There are already vegetarian alternatives to shark fin's soup and sea cucumber; so it's high time that an innovative chef developed a vegetarian version of foie-gras."

Duck and goose liver also feature prominently on many Chinese menus, where it is often sauteed. As demand for the product grows, production on the Chinese mainland has increased and overseas firms such as the French brand Rougie have established foie gras farms here. According to a spokesman from the company, the birds in question are migratory, so it is natural for them to store fat in their livers to accumulate reserves in preparation for the long journeys. He acknowledges that while the feeding tube may not be comfortable, it is the same process used to insert tubes in people in hospital.

The Hilton Shanghai Executive Chef Emmanuel Souliere is considered an expert on the dish, and is quick to counter activists' claims. The Frenchman says that local diners love the dish, and his suppliers are telling him demand in local restaurants is skyrocketing. A vegetarian alternative would be welcome, he says, but is unlikely to replace the original.

He agrees that the migratory pattern of the birds means they are suited to the production process, although he is far from callous as far as animal welfare is concerned. "Of course I care, this is just the same type of farming process as other ranch animals; we can't (just) eat wild animals. The farming process is not a torture."

Michelin-starred Stefan Stiller is also skeptical of claims the animals are being mistreated. "I care about the animals, but I think PETA is sometimes not very reasonable and if you think about foie gras you also need to look how the pigs, chicken and veal are treated."

The proprietor of his eponymous restaurant in the Cool Docks visited the Hudson Valley Foie Gras Farm (north of New York) 10 years ago, and "did not get the impression that the animals are suffering and in serious pain." Unlike Souliere, he would not use a vegetarian alternative.

The farm was featured in an episode of Anthony Bourdain's entertaining "No Reservations" Food Network show. In it, the celebrity chef invites a vet to explain the production process, suggesting that concerns for their well-being are grossly overstated. A clip from the show can be found on the video-sharing Website Youtube.

So who's right - activists such as PETA, or bon vivants who enjoy the dish? Ultimately it is a matter of choice, a point The Portman Ritz-Carlton Shanghai Executive Chef Christian Rassinoux puts succinctly. "Yes the treatment of the geese and ducks in order to fatten their livers is not very nice. On the other hand one can choose not to eat foie gras for that reason or one can become a vegetarian in order to avoid the slaughter of millions of animal every day."

Can we impose? No, it is a choice. Should the freedom of choice in regard to the food chain be challenged? And then where would it stop?


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