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(article, Caroline Cummins)

So the big news in Chicago, nearly a year ago, was that the city had banned the sale of foie gras, the fattened liver (generally from ducks or geese) beloved of French restaurants everywhere. (Within the year, stories were circulating about restaurants and vendors defying the ban.) 

Producing foie gras, the argument goes, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment for the birds, which are force-fed until their livers become plump, fatty, and unnaturally large. The state of California has passed a law banning not the sale but the production of foie gras, to go into effect by 2012. 

A few months after the Chicago ban, the national grocery-store chain Whole Foods announced that it was following suit in the be-nice-to-animals department by ceasing to sell live lobsters. Keeping the lobsters alive in tanks of water until sale was deemed inhumane.

Lobsters and foie gras are luxury foods. In the U.S., only three farms — two in New York and one in California — produce foie gras; together, they earn about $17 million wholesale each year. The U.S. lobster industry is much larger, with annual sales of around $300 million.

Per capita, Americans eat about 15 pounds of fish every year, mostly in the form of shrimp, canned tuna, and salmon. This is a relative drop in the oceanic bucket when compared to our love of animal flesh; every year, meat-loving Americans chomp down more than 60 pounds per capita of beef, pork, and poultry.

The retail value of U.S. beef alone is some $80 billion every year. That's far more cows trooping through filthy stockyards and slaughterhouses than birds being fattened up for foie gras or lobsters hauled from the ocean.

Back in the 1970s, the animal-rights movement picked a much bigger target in the decadent-foods industry: veal. Photos of calves shackled inside boxes led to a steep decline in veal consumption; we may still love our hamburgers and steak, but it's rare to see veal piccata on a menu anymore.

We tend to forget, however, that the suffering of those baby cows, little birds, and snapping lobsters is on the same level as that experienced by the adult bovines, chickens, and pigs we eat so much more often. Sure, it's warm and fuzzy to save a calf or a duck, but if genuine reform of the factory-farm system is what we're after, why tackle tiny targets like foie gras and lobsters? Why not go whole hog, as it were, and take on the megaproducers as well?

Jeffrey Steingarten, writing in Men's Vogue_, agrees that foie gras is "an easy target." He also admits that, while he likes meat and tries to eat only the humanely produced version, he's not cutting it with the animal-rights crowd: "Animal-rights advocates ... argue for humane husbandry and slaughter, but underneath it all they won't rest until we stop killing animals for food."

Whether we stop eating animals or not, the industrial food system deserves a good hard look.