The shark cuts noiselessly through the water, scanning for prey. Nearby, a piece of meat hangs tantalizingly. In a flash, the predator darts forward and clamps down its powerful jaws. A searing pain shoots through its head and, as it jerks back in a vain effort to escape, it feels itself being pulled upward. The pain increases. In a blinding flash, the shark is lifted, writhing, from the water and hoisted onto a hard, foreign surface. As it gasps for air, strange, indistinct figures loom above. One of them bends down, and now the pain is in the animal’s dorsal fin, coursing through its spine. Then, as quickly as it was removed, the shark is pushed back into the water. It can breathe again, but something is horribly wrong. Blood spurts from the wound on its back; pain overwhelms its senses. It feels the urge to escape but can’t swim straight. In a panic, it lurches, flails and finally is still, drifting with the current, the life draining from its body.
The goose opens its mouth, anticipating food. Instead, it feels a hard, foreign object sliding forcefully down its throat. As the bird’s esophagus expands, it struggles against this odd, uncomfortable sensation. Now the food comes, quickly and relentlessly; in a matter of seconds, the goose’s stomach is filled to bursting. The object is removed and the goose is returned to its cage, but the process is repeated again and again until the bird has grown fat and lethargic, reduced to little more than a living feed bag. Release comes only when the goose is finally slaughtered, its distended liver removed and the rest of the carcass discarded.
For most of us, eating is an unconscious act. Sure, we think about things like preparation or how many grams of saturated fat a meal contains, but when it comes to the origins of our food–specifically the where, when and how–we tend to subscribe to the old “ignorance is bliss” philosophy.
Of course, there are activists and organizations dedicated to making sure we don’t ignore the implications of our dietary choices. Anti-GMO, pro-organic, locavores–name a food-related battle and there are people committed to fighting it. That’s especially true when meat is added to the equation and the dilemmas aren’t merely about health and sustainability, but morality as well.
During the current legislative session, two bills were introduced that deal with a pair of hot-button delicacies: foie gras and shark fin soup.
“The practice of shark finning, where a shark is caught, the fin is cut off, and the shark is returned to the water, causes tens of millions of sharks to die a slow death each year,” reads the measure text of SB2169. “Some sharks starve to death, others are slowly eaten by other fish, and some drown because most sharks need to keep moving to force water through their gills for oxygen.” The bill sought to outlaw the possession, sale or distribution of shark fins statewide (shark finning is already illegal in Hawaii, but many restaurants have fins shipped in from elsewhere).
Meanwhile, SB2170 argues that the force-feeding associated with foie gras (literally, “fat liver”) leads to increased mortality from puncture wounds and infections in the birds’ throats and “the numerous side effects of having an enlarged liver, such as diarrhea, bone demineralization, and other digestive diseases.” The bill mandates that “a product shall not be sold or distributed in the State if it is the result of force feeding a bird for the purpose of enlarging the bird’s liver beyond normal size.” (“Bird” is defined as either a goose or duck, the two fowl used to make foie gras).
SB2169 was passed by the state legislature this week, while SB2170 died in committee in February. But whether or not they become laws is, in some respects, less important than the debate they re-ignited: a tug-of-war between cultural advocates, business interests and the animal rights community that runs especially deep in the melting pot that is Hawaii.
Predictably, much of the measure testimony in favor of both bills came from animal rights groups and, in the case of the shark fin ban, conservationists and ocean researchers. They present attention-grabbing, at times shocking statistics (73 to 100 million sharks are killed annually, as bycatch or for their fins, according to Marine Levine, director of Princeton’s Shark Research Institute) and impassioned pleas (“Sharks have been slaughtered in astonishing numbers,” said Maui resident David Fleetham, quoted in testimony from the Hawaii Wildlife Fund. “A combination of misinformation from Hollywood depicting sharks as blood thirsty killers and ignorance has brought these calm, careful, cautious and magnificent creatures to their collective knees.”). The Humane Society, meanwhile, dismissed shark-fin soup consumers as “an affluent few.”
But not everyone sees it that way. “[T]his legislation plainly supports discrimination against Chinese which, given the history of Chinese in the United States, is not unheard [of] and discrimination against native Hawaiians, whose use of coastal sharks in cultural practices…is threatened,” wrote Charles M. Ka’ai’ai. (Proving just how divisive and multifaceted this issue is, some testimony in support of the bill also centered on Native Hawaiian culture, and the sacred role of sharks, or mano.) Clay Tam, who identified himself as a “Voting, Tax paying Fisherman of Hawaii,” called shark-fin soup “a significant part of the Chinese culture as the soup provides health and spiritual benefits.”
The same dichotomy plays out in the foie gras bill testimony. “[These animals] are inhumanely treated…simply to provide a gourmet food item for humans,” wrote Lorraine Sakaguchi of Honolulu. “[T]hey are forced to consume severely restricted types of food in massive quantities that they would not choose to eat if given any free choice about the matter at all. Nor would they choose to be painfully (or, at best, uncomfortably) fed with the use of tubes and augers.” “People worldwide are increasingly associating foie gras with extreme cruelty to animals,” said Big Island resident Eva Davis, adding that numerous countries and states have already moved to ban the substance (California’s ban is set to take effect in 2012).
On the other side of the ledger, Oahu chef and restaurant owner Nicolas Chaize said he “grew up in France on a duck farm” and that foie gras is “an essential part of cooking,” something that’s been “[passed] on generation after generation.” The Hawaii Farm Bureau (HFB) suggested the claims of animal rights activists are overblown. “According to veterinarians and other scientists who have witnessed and studied foie gras production practices, they are neither cruel nor inhumane,” HFB wrote (no specific studies are cited, though it is true some groups, including the American Veterinary Medical Association, have not taken a position on the issue). “Animals certainly deserve respect and compassion,” continues the testimony. “They should not be made to suffer. However, because their anatomies are completely different from humans, it makes no sense to anthropomorphize ducks and geese into people.”
For some, including groups like PETA, meat is murder. Period, end of discussion. For others, including farmers and the lobby organizations that support them, killing animals is a way of life; human safety (and profits) are the only concern. Between those polarized extremes lies a vast gray area. Most people agree animals shouldn’t be tortured or made to suffer unnecessarily. But what does that mean in practice? Is there ever truly a humane way to kill a living thing?
Opponents of both SB2169 and SB2170 point out that there are alternatives to the severe practices that outrage activists and make headlines. Finning isn’t the only way to harvest shark fins, it’s just the cheapest and most expedient. Ditto force-feeding for foie gras. Perhaps the answer is to ban the objectionable methods, not the food itself. Then again, that’s unlikely to satisfy hard-line fur-and-fin crusaders. “Banning [foie gras] is the foot in the door for questioning all animal agriculture,” wrote HFB. “Should we dictate what people can and cannot eat? Should we ban kalua pig, Spam, hamburger, eggs, and chicken katsu next?”
The thing is, the other side would probably answer that rhetorical question with an unequivocal “yes.” This is a line-in-the-sand situation; a workable compromise may be impossible. Much like abortion, the death penalty and other life-and-death quandaries, there are really only two sides–and you’re on one or the other, based (in this case) on what you choose to put in your mouth.