Gag: Foie Gras and Horse Meat


Early last week Congress voted to lift the ban on horse slaughter in the United States. [] The act, buried in a much larger bill, has surely sent a gagillion horse-crazy people into deep depression. But the message I’m getting from many in the animal welfare world is that this decision was a good one for domestic horses. Turns out the most common destination for U. S. horses deemed ready for slaughter was Mexico, where slaughterhouse regulation is comparatively weak. Horses killed in the United States, I’m told, will assuredly be better off than if they’d been killed in Mexico. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, partially in deference to this logic, supported the measure.

This justification makes sense–at least as it’s framed. But what I find especially disturbing is the frame. Think about it: we’re up in arms over where an animal should be slaughtered rather than thinking seriously about whether or not we should be slaughtering it at all. Such an ethical by-pass is a stark reminder of how, in a food world defined by growing inquisitiveness, our thinking about the place of animals in our diet remains deeply impoverished. How can it be that, in a culinary culture that’s never been more aggressive about investigating food, we refuse to even remotely entertain the prospect that eating a horse might be a tragedy?

To expand the frame a bit, consider a duck. A significant number of ethically concerned consumers deem foie gras nothing short of a diabolical slice of suffering. Famous chefs have sworn off the stuff, and I wish I had a dime for every omnivore I know who passionately opposes foie gras on ethical grounds. What’s interesting is that this opinion prevails despite humanity’s relatively remote relationship with the duck–we’ve never worked or lived closely with these creatures. Their history is hardly intertwined with ours. Still, we’re vehement about protecting their livers. This position, of course, stands in stark contrast to the collective yawn we just let out upon hearing that the horse–an animal with whom we’ve plowed fields, colonized continents, waged war, and (with thankful rarity) buggered [[]]–may be coming to meat counter near you.

If duck liver is verboten but horse meat is in, we have some explaining to do. The most common response to this disparity will be that it’s the the way an animal is raised that matters when it comes to eating ethically. Ducks suffer when tubes are shoved in their throats and their livers are fattened; horses, however, can (so we’re told) lead a good life and die in peace in the comfort of a loving abattoir. You know this drill. But such an argument only perpetuates a mentality that ensures we’ll never make progress when it comes to improving the lives of animals. In sum, to eat horse meat (or condone it) while deeming foie gras ethically unsound is to perpetuate what you clearly disdain: the poor treatment of animals. Let me try and explain why.

Most opponents of foie gras come to their position after hearing about or seeing videos of ducks being force-fed mush through a tube jammed into their gullets. Even if it’s true that ducks lack a gag reflex, these searing images disgust us. It’s worthing thinking about why. Is it because we believe an animal deserves equal moral consideration and, as a result, should not be force fed so humans can pay $40 a plate to eat their internal organs? No, for many of us, this is not the problem. After all, many (most?) people who won’t eat foie gras are probably just fine eating the duck itself. Instead, our opposition, however unlikely, arises from the fact that humans can gag. Every one of us has choked on something in our lives and we know that its a crappy feeling. Can you imagine your whole life with a tube stuck in your throat? Yes, we can, and it’s for this very reason that we can also directly empathize with ducks in confinement and, no matter how distant our shared past, no matter how foreign we are to them, declare force-feeding, and hence its products, abhorrently inhumane.

Now take the horse. Because we know horses as well as we do, because they’ve been integral to so much of human history, we also know that they’re capable of living exceedingly happy lives. Our bond with these animals has been enduring; our past with them tight. Why is it then that most of us are able to discuss their slaughter–even PETA!–as if where the most natural act in the world? How is it that even the most openly welfare minded of consumers can casually subjugate the ethics of slaughter to the logistics of location? I’d say the answer has to do with empathy. That is, whereas we can empathize with having a tube shoved into our throats, most of us cannot (thankfully) even remotely empathize with being shunted off to a slaughterhouse.This prospect is quite fortunately beyond the realm of even the more sordid of our imaginations. We literally cannot relate to such a scenario.

Which brings me to the upshot. Because we cannot imagine what it would be like for ourselves to be culled and killed, we have the luxury of fabricating what the experience is like for the animal we want to eat. Herein lies the heart of the distinction between the hatred of foie gras and acceptance of horse meat. Our actual inability to empathize with what an animal endures when it’s slaughtered allows us to project whatever we want to project upon that inherently tragic moment. They lived a good life. They didn’t know what was coming. Temple Grandin designed the slaughterhouse. They sacrificed their lives for us. And so on. We cannot make the same rationalizations for ducks raised for foie gras for a very simple reason: we would know, as a result of our own experience, that any positive projection we came up with would be a distortion of reality. We would know this because, alas, we gag.

The deeper value of the “empathy test” is that it reiterates the most essential similarity humans share with animals: sentience. Humans, just like animals, experience pleasure and pain. Our empathy provides the bridge between our sentience and theirs. The fact that so many consumers reject foie gras because of the painful manner in which ducks are fed, and the fact that the way they are fed is a phenomenon to which we can directly relate, is ipso facto proof that many consumers already recognize the moral baseline of sentience. Anyone who thinks that it’s possible to eschew liver but eat horse–or any animal product, for that matter–is choking on self-deception.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

3 Responses to Gag: Foie Gras and Horse Meat

  1. Provoked says:

    What a fascinating look at what ignites our empathy. It makes sense, the torture we can relate to is opposed because it’s framed within our own human experience. Yet, the horses (cows, pigs and chickens) endure something so alien to us that it allows for fantastical rationalizations and denials.

    There must be some people though who have been physically victimized… Or put in positions where they felt their lives were endangered who could identify with the terror an animal feels in a slaughter facility. Maybe this is where negative experiences actually make one more whole?

    The thing about empathy though sounds like something I was recently made aware of through this post at Veganelder Dr. Helmut Kaplan suggests that the use of the Golden Rule is somewhat limiting because it encourages us to *do on to others as we would have done to us*… And since we can only perceive things through a narrow view of our own experiences that cuts off the true extent to the compassion that ought to be. Kaplan instead says it’s wiser and more honest to treat others as *they* would like to be treated.

    Using this standard it wouldn’t matter if it was an issue of force feeding ducks or subjecting someone to a kill floor – None of these creatures would want any of that to happen. I think this approach, along with your observations on empathy – Is proof that we have a hard time getting beyond our one-track human-centric viewpoint. It’s always all about us.

    It’s been one the greatest mysteries to me why some feel genuine grief over another’s plight and yet how most others can remain totally numb… Your post helps in further understanding the puzzle. Thank you.

    Oh… And one mention – Your link to the excellent piece at the AtlanticWire site is broken… But I found the article here:

  2. CQ says:

    It’s true that we’re already conditioned to accept the stunning and slicing of animals’ throats. So our minds aren’t forced to stretch far to think of horse slaughter as not much different from the routine slaughter of cows, pigs, goats, sheep, chickens, turkeys and even ducks and geese. In other words, if we were to gag horses before killing them, and not gag ducks and geese, then all animal welfare activists would be up in arms about the torture of the former species.

    I think we need to consider just WHO the media is interviewing on this subject. PETA knows little if anything about horse slaughter, and has stayed on the sidelines until now. In fact, the main proponents of a federal ban on the slaughter of horses haven’t wanted PETA to get involved, for fear its reputation for crazy antics and anti-feminist images and vegan living would taint the discussion and lead to the slippery-slope conclusion that horse lovers want to abolish the slaughter of all animals, the eating of all flesh. Most people against horse slaughter continue to want their burgers and bacon, just as most people who oppose fois gras keep eating other animals.

    The fact is, polls consistently show that a minimum of 70% of American citizens find horse slaughter abhorrent, no matter where it is executed, no matter how close the abattoir is to the livestock auction house, and no matter how wretched the overall economy. So PETA, apparently bent on stirring up controversy, is swimming against a strong tide of sentiment that wants nothing to do with the slaughter of American horses either in neighboring countries or on U.S. soil. And that is obviously in large part because most of us in this nation don’t eat our friends and don’t think it’s right for others to do so.

    It should also be mentioned that the PETA that protests KFC and seal slaughter and zoos is the same organization that recommends killing pitbulls from dogfighting busts and that immediately “euthanizes” upwards of 90% of all the adoptable dogs and cats it purposely rescues from gas-chamber shelters. In other words, PETA believes that a “kind” method of killing is a fate preferable to either more cruel methods of killing or possible future suffering at the hands of an uncaring adopter. (Its premise, apparently, is there are far more irresponsible, rotten adopters who will cause the animals to suffer further than there are good families who will give rescued animals a great life.) I imagine it is this kind of (il)logic that is fueling PETA’s sudden embrace of horse slaughter. After all, domesticated horses are thought of as companion animals, and PETA seems to want to rid the world of that scourge.

    Would that the media interviewed people who know all the facts about horse slaughter; then we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. Hey, you unbiased, truth-seeking journalists out there, why not phone the individuals who have been fighting horse slaughter for years? They can cut right through all the lame excuses and invalid arguments for why this blood-sucking, bottom-feeding industry should be resumed in the U.S. Truly, instead of settling for the startling statements of shock-queen Ingrid Newkirk, reporters worth their salt should be calling Equine Welfare Alliance’s John Holland ( or Jerry Finch at Habitat for Horses ( or Susan Wagner at Equine Advocates ( or Chris Heyde at Animal Welfare Institute ( — anyone besides PETA’s not-for-all-animals’ president.

    If PETA and other self-proclaimed animal welfare proponents or horse advocates do not understand that resuming the commercial killing of horses in the U.S. won’t help the economy-battered horse industry, won’t make the not-fit-for-human-consumption drugs in the horses’ bodies go away, won’t make the feedlots or the auction houses or the transport trailers or the kill boxes any more palatable for the traumatized horses, won’t change the minds of those who prefer to illegally starve or abandon their horses instead of selling them to kill buyers, won’t prevent the theft of horses (but will increase it), won’t cause the profits to stay in the U.S. (foreign companies will always own the plants and ship the flesh abroad), and, most importantly, won’t improve the moral tone of this nation, then they are not fit to speak on behalf of horses. Rather, they are every bit as much of a traitor to our equine friends as are those who directly profit from this Judas-like enterprise.

    There’s plenty of gagging going on in this country, and it’s not just by the ducks and geese and those who can empathize with the poor fowl. It’s also going on at the thought of horse slaughter resuming — even though many in the media appear determined not to hear the sound and the fury.

  3. CQ says:

    Here’s a recent blog from a real equine welfare advocate who understands the issue in depth:

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