Liberated liver: Sarahjane Blum and a rescued duck.
claim foie gras is heaven on toast, and some claim it’s animal
cruelty. Who’s right?
Foie gras—a paté of the fattened liver of a duck or goose,
often baked or sautéed—is considered one of the world’s greatest
delicacies. It inspires passionate reactions from people,
typically polarized into one of two camps: a swooning endorsement,
or an angry tirade.
Foie gras (French for “fat liver”) has been the subject of
controversy for many years. It is produced by force-feeding
a duck or goose a pound of corn-rich food (a tenth of its
healthy body weight) at least three times a day. The ducks
are fed by being caught, pinned, and having an inflexible,
unlubricated metal pole put down their throats, depositing
the food directly into their stomachs. This repeated force-feeding
results in a metabolic illness called hepatic lipidosis. By
the time of slaughter, the ducks’ livers are essentially diseased
organs, six to 10 times their healthy size, and yellow from
(When filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who ate nothing but McDonald’s
for an entire month for the film Super Size Me, visited
a doctor at the end of his quest, the doctor dryly informed
him that his liver was “turning into paté.”)
Banned in many European nations, foie gras is produced in
only two places in the United States—Sonoma Foie Gras in Sonoma,
Calif., and Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Liberty, N.Y.
Recently, Sarahjane Blum, an activist associated with the
anti-foie gras Web site GourmetCruelty.com, was arrested after
helping liberate several birds from the Hudson Valley Foie
Gras facility. She and others from GourmetCruelty.com and
the Animal Protection and Rescue League spent a year undercover
investigating and documenting the conditions of the factories,
eventually producing the documentary Delicacy of Despair:
Behind the Closed Doors of the Foie Gras Industry. Blum
was taken into custody after screening the documentary at
a conference at Syracuse University, and charged with felony
burglary. She is awaiting trial.
conditions were filthy,” says Blum. “Every animal was sick
or injured.” Because of the excessive force-feeding, the birds
often have neurological problems, and regularly become so
obese that they are unable to walk and must drag themselves
along by their wings. During her investigation, Blum observed
bloody wings and beaks, birds being literally eaten alive
by rats, birds that had contracted pneumonia from being forced
to inhale food, and birds that had exploded or choked to death
on their own vomit. The pre-slaughter mortality rate of birds
in foie gras production is more than 20 times higher than
in other poultry- producing industries.
The producers of foie gras claim the force-feeding practices
are not cruel and the ducks are healthy and happy. They claim
that ducks in the wild will swallow whole fish and even lobsters,
and that their necks are structured to stretch to accommodate
large quantities of food.
Local veterinarian Holly Cheever disagrees. The arguments
presented for why foie gras production is not cruel, she says,
are laughable. Cheever, a Guilderland vet and vocal opponent
of foie gras production, was allowed to tour the Hudson Valley
Foie Gras facility in 1996 at the request of Whole Foods Market,
which makes it a policy to inspect facilities of companies
it considers doing business with. In her report to Whole Foods,
Cheever rebuffed the company’s claims that the force-feeding
is similar to the natural feeding process of migratory ducks,
and that ducks have a cornified (hardened) esophagus. In fact,
the birds used in foie gras production are Moulards, an artificial
hybrid that do not exist in nature, and do not migrate. On
the farms, the ducks are often kept in small isolation cages,
making it impossible for them to get any type of exercise.
Also, the claim of a cornified esophagus, she says, is completely
After reviewing her report, Whole Foods Market declined to
carry products from Hudson Valley Foie Gras’ parent company,
D’Artagnan Inc. (Hudson Valley Foie Gras declined to be interviewed
for this story.)
For some local restaurants, however, foie gras is simply a
matter of taste. Davis Britton, the head chef of the Springwater
Bistro in Saratoga, says he averages 25 orders of foie gras
appetizers an evening, and never receives complaints from
patrons about the inclusion of foie gras on the menu. He says
he visited the Hudson Valley Foie Gras farm, and found it
Both New York and California are considering bills outlawing
the force-feeding of birds. The New York bill, introduced
by Assemblyman Jack McEneny (D-Albany), would amend the state’s
animal cruelty law to make it “unlawful to force feed a bird,
by hand or machine, for the purpose of fatty enlargement of
the bird’s liver.” The bill, though currently stalled in committee,
it has received more than 1,000 postcards of support from
all over the country this year alone. Jim Van Alstine, campaign
coordinator of the Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society, also has
a local campaign in the works.
Me the Money
is searching for new ways to make ends meet, but officials
have yet to find a surefire solution to the city’s financial
Necessity, according to Plato, is the mother of invention.
These days, lawmakers in the cash-strapped city of Schenectady
are learning just how much truth is contained in that statement
as they entertain potential sources of revenue for the coming
is in dire straits,” observed Councilwoman Barbara Strangfeld,
“so we have to consider every option.”
Schenectady currently holds the state’s lowest bond rating,
and city taxpayers have grown increasingly frustrated at shouldering
the bulk of the city’s economic burden. A small group of city
residents recently saw fit to make a trip to the state Capitol
after Schenectady was denied the state aid lawmakers were
Among other revenue-generating proposals currently circulating
through City Hall is a program that would ask tax-exempt and
nonprofit organizations to voluntarily kick in some money
to city coffers.
The Fair Share program, introduced by Strangfeld at a recent
City Council meeting, recommends that agencies such as hospitals
and colleges cover the cost of the city services they use,
in return for occupying what would otherwise be taxable property.
According to city assessor Tony Popolizio, tax-exempt organizations
account for nearly $600 million of the city’s $2 billion assessed
program] would be strictly voluntary,” explained Strangfeld,
who pointed to Binghamton’s fledgling Fair Share program as
a model for Schenectady.
In order to garner support for the program, Binghamton Mayor
Richard Bucci distributed a letter in 2003 to the city’s tax-exempt
agencies describing the level of the city’s financial needs.
The letter then detailed the amount each organization would
pay if taxed in the standard method.
respectfully ask you to consider donating 50% of this amount,”
Bucci requested in bold print near the end of the letter.
While initial estimates expected the program to add $2 million
to the city’s revenue, Fair Share has gotten off to a slow
start in Binghamton, collecting slightly more than $20,000
have to consider it a long-term program,” reasoned Strangfeld,
who added that many tax-exempt agencies may need several years
to work the donations into their annual budgets.
If approved, Strangfeld’s assessment may prove accurate, as
similar, more established programs in Erie and York, Penn.,
have brought in more than $300,000 for each community.
Yet the agencies holding most of the city’s tax-exempt property
have been less certain about the program’s potential. Along
with Union College, St. Clare’s Hospital and Ellis Hospital
hold a large portion of the city’s tax-exempt land.
you’re asking about giving our fair share, we’ve already made
a significant investment in the community,” said Union College
spokesman Charlie Casey, who described Fair Share program
as a “shortsighted solution to the city’s economic problems.”
According to Casey, Big Brother Big Sister programs, as well
as mentoring and other community-service activities, have
enabled the college to donate its “fair share” in ways that
often go unrecognized by city residents. Along with renovating
much of the outlying area to the tune of nearly $25 million,
Casey added that the college provides use of its athletic
fields to community sports programs.
These contributions, said Casey, are in addition to the $250,000
the college pays for water and sewer service each year.
Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton agreed that the college and
other nonprofit agencies provide a number of benefits that
often fly beneath the radar of city officials and residents.
the college wasn’t here, there would be a significant impact
on the city,” said Stratton, “so we can’t look at the nonprofits
simply as a cash cow.”
Stratton added that keeping the program voluntary was key
to its success, and indicated that some of the city’s nonprofit
organizations are already making the type of donations detailed
in the program. In April, members of the nonprofit Schenectady
ARC presented the city with a check for $22,000, saying that,
“we want to pay our way and be part of the promise of Schenectady.”
The organization has been making annual, voluntary payments
of $20,000 for a few years.
For Schenectady residents, the notion of nonprofits easing
the city’s tax burden is a welcome proposal. Faced with rising
property taxes and potential new fees for public safety, garbage
and other city services, some residents are skeptical about
of the real value of these tax-exempt organizations’ contributions.
don’t want to sound unkind, because what ARC did was wonderful,”
explained Schenectady resident Patricia Zollinger, “but for
the rest [of the nonprofit agencies], painting bridges and
creating soccer fields just isn’t enough.”
Down the House
Structural support: Members of Save Wellington Row at
Fridays rally. Photo by: Teri Currie
sudden announcement has put the Wellington Hotel in a wrecking
crew’s sights, but questions still surround the controversial
If a historic
landmark falls apart in the middle of the city and no one
pays attention, is it a problem? Until there’s more than a
decade of neglect, a dangling 5-ton cornice, and plans for
a shiny new convention center involved, the answer from Albany
City Hall would appear to be a resounding “no.”
past week, city officials have moved quickly—some critics
say too quickly—in announcing plans to demolish the Wellington
Hotel, a downtown Albany landmark near the corner of State
and Eagle streets. The 10-story hotel suddenly gained the
attention of city officials last Tuesday (Aug. 17) when a
passerby noticed that a section of the massive brass-and-wood
cornice running along the roof had dislodged from its moorings.
After blocking off the street and removing the cornice, a
team of engineers was sent into the building to investigate
the structure’s integrity. Their report confirmed what many
city residents were already well aware of—that the hotel had
deteriorated significantly since being abandoned nearly two
recent press conference, Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings said
that the city has been unable to contact Wellington owner
Samuel Sebba, a London businessman who purchased the property
in 1987 as a speculative investment. Jennings added that the
cost of any necessary demolition would still be the owner’s
responsibility, with the project getting underway sometime
in the near future.
questions remain as to why the Wellington, which lies within
sight of City Hall, was allowed to decay to the level described
by city-commissioned engineers. After announcing plans to
demolish the hotel, Jennings said that he had no recollection
of the last time a city official had been in the building,
let alone when it last had been inspected.
not saying that [the Wellington] is perfectly sound or habitable
right now,” explained Bill Brandow, a local architect and
member of Save Wellington Row, an ad hoc group pushing for
renovation of the Wellington and neighboring historic—and
vacant—buildings. “We’re just saying that it doesn’t pose
the sort of imminent danger that would require demolition.”
rallied near the Wellington’s cordoned-off sidewalk on Friday
(Aug. 20) to voice their disappointment with Jennings’ decision
and announce the results of an analysis by Donald Friedman,
a New York City preservation engineer whom the group had commissioned.
While Friedman’s examination of the building was limited to
an exterior appraisal, his findings contradict many of those
cited by Jennings as basis for demolition.
structural description on page one [of the city-commissioned
report] is odd,” indicated Friedman in his examination of
the city’s report. According to Friedman, a type of inner
architecture described in the city’s report was rarely used
during the time of the Wellington’s construction.
of the city-commissioned report] states that the condition
of the interior floor and frames constitute an imminent threat
to the public,” said Friedman. “It is not clear how, since
the building is not open to the public.”
to city code, vacant buildings must not only be sealed against
public intrusion but also against weather effects. While the
initial engineers’ report describes extensive water damage—courtesy
of a leaking roof—there is no record that the Wellington was
ever found in violation of city code.
are 800 other vacant buildings in this city,” said Jennings
when questioned about the city’s sudden concern for the Wellington.
“We deal with them when we can.”
contradicting reports have led some critics to question whether
the destruction of the Wellington is really a matter of public
safety, or simply a convenient transition into another project:
the Albany convention center. Jennings and other city officials
have pushed for Albany to become the new home of a major convention
center for several years now, and the block on which the Wellington
currently sits is one of three potential sites under consideration
for the $225 million project.
asked what effect the decision to demolish the Wellington
will have upon the convention center project, Jennings aggressively
dismissed the question, saying, “anyone who goes down that
route [of questioning] is very wrong.”
decision is not without its supporters. Elizabeth Griffin,
director of the Historic Albany Foundation, agreed with the
city-commissioned engineers’ assessment. Griffin added that
her organization would provide input during the project, and
any demolition deemed necessary would occur in a back-to-front
and roof-to-street direction, preserving as much of the “State
Street streetscape” as possible and allowing for development
in cleared areas.
likely that very much of the rear of the building would be
incorporated into the new structure,” explained Griffin.
some lawmakers are looking to curb the city’s use of sudden
Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) is hoping that the
plight of the Wellington Hotel might revive interest in an
ordinance he introduced in February 2002 to the Common Council.
The ordinance would only allow for the city-sponsored “emergency
demolition” as a last resort, providing that no other options
capable of preserving the targeted building or its residents
were available. The ordinance also would allow a building’s
owner to commission a structural report, rather than relying
on city-commissioned engineers’ findings.
Calsolaro acknowledged that such an ordinance probably would
not change the current situation with the Wellington—an unresponsive
owner essentially forfeits decision-making power—he added
that the surge of preservation-minded support brought on by
the Wellington’s demise might help push the ordinance out
a link between the convention center and the city’s sudden
interest in demolishing everything behind the State Street
façade, the only Common Council member to vote against a recent
convention-center resolution was cautious about framing the
scenario as anything but coincidence.
make any connections just yet,” said Calsolaro, “but it would
certainly make [the convention-center project] a little bit
easier if parts of those buildings were already torn down.”