Another Reason to Forgo Foie Gras

By on July 3, 2007 with 0 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

Many of the things we do to animals raised for food are callous and seem to defy common sense. They can be harmful to animals, but also detrimental to human self-interest.

Look what happened when producers fed ground-up animals to cattle, who are naturally herbivorous. We saw, at least in Europe, the onset of mad cow disease and, to date, nearly 200 human victims who have died from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Today, agribusiness interests cram too many animals into buildings, and, with these unacceptable stocking densities, producers sometimes resort to lacing feed or water with antibiotics to keep animals from getting sick. According to major medical groups such as the World Health Organization, the overuse of antibiotics has resulted in the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, whose transmission to people may turn life-threatening. 

And one of the raging debates in American food production is the means of obtaining foie gras. Ducks are force-fed so much that their livers swell up to 10 times their normal size. Force-feeding produces a diseased liver in the animals, and that’s certainly bad for the birds. But a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Tennessee and Linköping and Uppsala Universities in Sweden, and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that proteins in diseased livers, when consumed by people, may produce harmful protein deposits that can contribute to a range of human afflictions.

I asked Michael Greger, M.D., HSUS Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture, to offer a few observations about the topic. Here’s what he wrote:

One of the reasons mad cow disease is such a dreaded food-borne infection is that it is not caused by a conventional germ, such as a virus, fungus or bacteria, but by a simple protein. This so-called “prion” protein can trigger a deadly chain-reaction in the brain, seeding a cascade in which prion proteins build up and kill our brain cells, leaving holes behind for the sponge-like appearance of the brain that characterizes these diseases. Because the infection is caused by a protein, standard food processing techniques such as cooking and canning do not adequately kill it. You can’t cook mad cow disease out of the meat.

So what does this have to do with foie gras? In the June 26, 2007, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—the most prestigious scientific body in the United States—a team of scientists produced evidence that tiny fibers of proteins found in foie gras may trigger a potentially deadly disease in humans called amyloidosis.

Amyloidosis, which primarily affects people with inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, is caused by a reaction similar to mad cow. But, instead of a buildup of prion proteins, there’s a buildup of amyloid proteins throughout the body. Amyloid deposits in the human liver, spleen and kidney can lead to extensive organ damage and even death.

Recognizing that waterfowl such as ducks and geese placed under stressful environmental conditions can also develop widespread amyloid protein deposits in their organs, researchers wondered if the stress of force-feeding to produce foie gras might result in a sufficiently diseased liver which, if eaten, might trigger amyloidosis in the consumer. In their study, susceptible animals were fed commercial foie gras and, indeed, most rapidly ended up with extensive amyloid disease. The researchers conclude that it would “seem prudent” that children and adults at risk for this disease avoid foie gras. Furthermore, considering there are other diseases associated with amyloid build-up, they suggest that it may be “hazardous for individuals who are prone to develop other types of amyloid-associated disorders, e.g., Alzheimer’s disease or type II diabetes, to consume such products.”

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and some Chicago Alderman are working to overturn a ban on the sale of foie gras in the city. They said they are embarrassed by the humane ordinance. I don’t think it’s embarrassing to stop people from deliberating inducing a disease state in animals to produce a mere table treat (nor do California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger or the heads of 15 nations that have legislated against foie gras). And when we now realize that this so-called delicacy may threaten human health, is there really any rational and compelling basis for their actions? Perhaps their pride has trumped not only common decency, but also common sense.

Farm Animals

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