Tzaar Baalei Chaim: Foie Gras and Veal

One of the kashrut issues related to the realm of tzaar ba'alei chaim, the prohibition against causing pain to animals, is the permissibility of eating foie gras.[1] For those unfamiliar, foie gras is goose liver from a goose that has been force-fed and especially fattened in order to enhance the taste of the liver. It is considered to be a delicacy and its high cost attests to this. Indeed, it is generally only available in top restaurants and gourmet markets.

Can it be suggested that foie gras is forbidden due to the tzaar ba’alei chaim that the geese are forced to endure?

The prohibition of tzaar ba’alei chaim is generally waived in a situation of human benefit. For example, the Ramban writes that “Hashem’s mercies do not extend to the animal kingdom when human benefit is at stake.”[2] So too, and more importantly for halachic purposes, the Rema writes, “Anything that is necessary for a health benefit or for other matters [of human benefit] is not subject to prohibition of tza’ar ba’alei chaim… It is therefore permitted to pluck feathers from live geese [in order to obtain quills for writing] and there is no concern for transgressing tza’ar ba’alei chaim...”[3] He does conclude, however, that it is proper to refrain from even permissible acts of tzaar ba’alei chaim when the act is especially cruel.

Many halachic authorities have protested the production and consumption of foie gras, arguing that the manner in which the geese are force-fed is extraordinarily cruel and should therefore be banned accordingly.[4] Most contemporary authorities, however, are hesitant to enforce such a ban, considering that foie gras was a common staple in Europe among even the most pious Jews. Its popularity and widespread use in Europe was due to the fact that most Jews were resigned to a simple diet of foods such as noodles, cabbage, and potatoes. As such, fattened goose liver served as a source for many nutrients. It was also frequently fed to children in order for them to benefit from the additional fat and calories. Goose liver was also used as a fat in frying, cooking, seasoning, and even baking as there was little else available in the way of kosher “cooking fats” in Europe. Goose liver fat was referred to as “schmaltz,” a word still used today to describe fat and fatty foods. Therefore, it is argued that banning foie gras today might create the impression that our European ancestors were lax in their halachic observance.

On the other hand, force-feeding geese often damages their esophagus and other internal organs, rendering the animal, treifa, non-kosher, regardless of all other considerations.[5] Indeed, the Rema writes that “it is the custom in our city to be lenient regarding geese that are fed by hand in order to increase their fat. This is because there is an enactment in the city which requires the geese to be examined for perforations of the esophagus…”[6] The unfortunate reality, however, is that most kosher certifying agencies do not properly examine the esophagus for damage nor do they take into consideration most of the other halachic ramifications of force-feedings.[7] It should also be noted that in deference to the concern for damaging the internal organs of the geese, it is recommended that those who “feed the goose by hand” only feed them finely-ground food in order not to damage the esophagus.[8] The type of force-feeding that these geese undergo nowadays varies from farm to farm and there is no proper supervision or enforcement of any set standards. Today, foie gras is not a staple or necessity; it is a luxury. As such, its use, consumption, and certainly its method of production must be properly reevaluated.[9]

Closely related to the issue of producing foie gras is that of raising veal. Common production of veal meat often includes cruel treatment and deprivations to the animal. For example, the calves are raised in extremely cramped quarters so that they cannot move. This is done in order to prevent the calves from developing any muscles which allows for softer meat. These grim measures do not seem justifiable in order to be permitted under the dispensation of allowing tzaar baalei chaim for “legitimate human needs.” As Rav Moshe Feinstein says “…One is not permitted to do anything and everything that hurts animals, even if it is in order to profit from it. Only things that are of genuine benefit to man, such as slaughtering animals for food and using them for labor, and the like, are permissible.”[10] It seems that Rav Feinstein would also forbid the production and consumption of foie gras, as well, though he does not mention it explicitly.[11] It is somewhat disturbing that some of the authorities who allow foie gras without reservation seem to disregard the teaching of the Ramban who famously said that even when something might be permitted by the letter of the law, it should not be practiced when it appears unbecoming or otherwise not within the spirit of the law.[12]

[1] Darkei Teshuva, YD 33:130.

[2] Ramban, Devarim 22:6.

[3] Rema, EH 5:14. See also Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 191:1; Shevut Yaakov 3:71; Minchat Yitzchak 6:145.

[4] Yabia Omer 9:3.

[5] YD 33:9; Yabia Omer 9:3. See also: Ritva, Avoda Zara, 11a and

[6] Rema, YD 33:9.

[7] Tzitz Eliezer 11:49, 12:52, Mazon Kasher Min Hachai 3:13, Rema, YD 33:9.

[8] Taz, YD 33:18.

[9] Bach, YD 33; Darkei Teshuva, YD 33:131; Shevut Yaakov 1:56; Shevet Halevi 9:153.

[10] Igrot Moshe, EH 4:92. See also Shevut Yaakov 2:110; Chatam Sofer, YD 312; Shevet Halevi 2:7.

[11] Ibid.; “to force-feed an animal food it does not enjoy…is forbidden by the Torah.”

[12] Ramban, Vayikra 19:1.