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Duck dish puts cruelty on table

Portlanders may be wondering why the flap over foie gras has ruffled feathers of local activists, chefs and restaurateurs.

This controversial French p‰tŽ translates as 'fatty liver,' but doctors would define the engorged liver of a force-fed duck or goose as hepatic lipidosis. Animal activists simply call it cruel and hope education and legislation will stop the suffering for a half-million birds a year in the United States alone.

Fifteen countries and California already have banned force-feeding for foie gras, and for good reason. Undercover investigations in 2002 at the only two U.S. facilities producing it at that time revealed atrocities that would make gastronomes with the most perverse palates lose their appetite. Giant sheds warehouse tens of thousands of ducks in crowded, filthy pens, and as many more are crammed into tiny isolation cages, unable even to stretch a wing.

At Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York, some birds had eye infections so severe investigators could barely locate their eyes. Animals fared no better at Sonoma Foie Gras in California where sick birds with festering wounds were too overweight and weak to fend off rats eating them alive.

Then there's the force-feeding process. At three months, birds are massively overfed via a metal tube shoved down their throats to pump a pound of corn mush into their stomachs three times a day for almost a month, resulting in a diseased liver sometimes 12 times greater than normal size.

Industry sympathizers claim this process mimics wild birds' natural gorging before migration. But the brutality documented on these farms Ñ workers grabbing struggling birds by the neck, forcing the tube down their throats and then tossing them aside Ñ is anything but natural. Birds choke and sometimes die, their vomit-encrusted bodies left in cages and pens, or piled high in trash cans.

In Defense of Animals is educating chefs and diners nationwide asking, 'How much cruelty can you swallow?' using undercover images to make our case. After sending a polite letter and video evidence, we ask restaurateurs to remove the offending dish. If that doesn't work, activists peacefully leaflet outside.

The community has responded positively. Two Portland restaurants have already made the right choice, and countless passers-by thank us. IDA hopes the last holdouts will get their ducks in the same row as Higgins and Brasserie Montmartre and dump this dish, helping make Portland foie gras-free.

Claims of activists harassing customers are simply not true and distract from the issue. Some critics point to other injustices, charging that animal advocates should be working on more important issues Ñ war, hunger or homelessness Ñ as if compassion is a scarce commodity that needs rationing. The truth is, we already are. IDA volunteers and animal advocates include teachers, social workers and people from all walks of life working on myriad issues. In fact, the IDA office recently took in a homeless couple for six weeks when local shelters wouldn't take their cats.

No restaurant will go belly-up by eliminating one entree. Far from harming small business, activists see an opportunity for inventive chefs to make a name for themselves by masterminding a compassionate culinary counterpart.

Besides, 'faux gras' has a great ring to it, don't you think?

Matt Rossell is the Northwest outreach coordinator for In Defense of Animals. He lives in Northeast Portland.