05/18/2012 08:01 pm ET Updated Jul 18, 2012

Why The Foie Gras Debate Misses The Mark

I am a lifelong vegetarian who has spent many years studying, and for a period of time working, on factory farming issues. In order to dissect these issues and encourage effective communication, we need a debate that is founded upon rational analysis. I am disappointed to see that, as with almost every "animal rights" issue, the recent foie gras debate has been presented by the media as deeply polarized, with both sides of the debate caricatured and emotionalized.

Unfortunately for those who hold factory farming to be unethical, the very vocal and often extremist animal rights activists like PETA and Animal Liberation Front often undermine their own arguments by making grand and unrealistic claims. A recent HuffPost article quotes PETA activists who argue that animal welfare cannot be a priority in any situation where animals are used for-profit, and admit that banning foie gras is a step closer to their ultimate goal of making the US vegetarian.

These are not useful statements. Take the latter statement but applied to humans: all situations where humans are used for profit, their welfare is completely ignored. Whilst this can be true in extremes, e.g. sweat shops, the vast majority of employers are not in the practice of wholly disregarding the welfare of their employees. PETA needs to pick their battles: animal rights, or capitalism.

Furthermore, forcibly banning consumption of animals is an unrealistic and unproductive goal; people will always eat meat. Efforts need to be concentrated on creating a meat industry that recognizes our interdependence with our environment and the animals that inhabit it and is consequently both sustainable and welfare centric.

On the other hand, the polarized pro-foie gras position is also an intellectual failure. Take for example the argument that the right to consume foie gras (which is not even questioned by the proposed legislation) follows from the fact that people should have the right to choose what they put in their bodies. This argument makes no distinction between choices that are morally appropriate or reprehensible. Should we fight for our choice to wear jewelry made of conflict metals born out of rape and war? Or to adorn our bodies with clothes made by people who don't earn enough to live above the poverty line?

As a culture we value the individual so deeply that we often fail to be conscious of the holistic and interdependent nature of existence.

The same article goes on to cite the critique that animal rights activists shouldn't be focusing on foie gras when the entire system is the problem. Two points need to be made here. Firstly, there is no quick fix for American factory farming: it is an industry heavily supported by government subsidies and dependant on exploiting a vast unskilled, minimum wage workforce of often illegal immigrants. Whilst I agree the ban is a band-aid for a bullet wound, it would be hugely naïve to think there aren't thousands of people (many of them the same people) working on changing the factory farm industry.

Secondly, foie gras is, first and foremost, a luxury good that has and forever will be only accessible to the financially elite. It is not a staple of daily life, as meat is for many. It is an expensive delicacy procured through practices that are forceful and cause unnecessary stress.

With respect to this current debate, we should recognize that foie gras advocates had seven years to repeal the upcoming ban and question the validity of their last minute attempts. The article should have attempted to outline the scientific research on the foie gras feeding process rather than only referring to the "maggots in the neck" dispute, which I strongly doubt is industry standard.

The biggest question for me is to what extent an abject disregard for the welfare of sentient beings can ever be justified in the name of luxury.