20/12/2011 06:29 GMT | Updated 18/02/2012 05:12 GMT

In Defence of Foie Gras

I was recently asked by a London based financial newspaper to write a commentary on the news that Dame Vera Lyn had became the latest celebrity to demand that Fortnum & Mason stop selling foie gras. On-going campaigns by animal rights activists, often using celebrity influence, have led many shops and restaurants to remove foie gras from their shelves and menus.

Unfortunately, the newspaper decided not to run the piece because they were fearful of being 'targeted' by animal rights campaigners. There is no record of any newspaper being harassed or pilloried for running articles discussing the merits of foie gras. But what if there had been? Clearly this newspaper is not the modern day Thundererbut such self-censorship reflects badly on the state of journalism in the UK.

This loss of nerve also massively exaggerates the reach of animal rights activists. These groups pick on soft targets - small family run restaurants and posh shops - who they believe won't be able to mobilise public opinion. This is an example of what happened one day in Yorkshire last week.

On Friday 9 December a small group of animal rights activists 'targeted' a list of Yorkshire based restaurants that serve foie gras. Van Zeller, a restaurant in Harrogate was subjected to a short but noisy demonstration. The protestors then made their way to the small village of Ramsgill where they protested outside the Yorke Arms Hotel. From there they moved onto Bolton Abbey, near Skipton where the Devonshire Arms Hotel was 'targeted'. Their activities included leafleting customers as they arrived to eat and making speeches condemning foie gras outside the establishments. Occasionally they book tables and then when seated stand up and denounce foie gras in front of other customers.

Most restaurants and shops don't need the hassle of these protests and cave in to this degree of pressure. Only this week Brook's, in Brighouse Yorkshire, and Six Baltic, based in the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art on the river Tyne, became the latest restaurants to drop foie gras, after protests led by the so called Northern Animal Rights Network.

Were it that all campaigns could be won with such little effort. In the past, animal rights activists have been known to participate in illegal and occasionally violent attacks against their opposition. Now it's phone calls, emails and small protests.

Low input activism this maybe, but it's clearly effective. Cowardice aside, when an established newspaper feels that it can't publish an article defending a perfectly legal practice - the selling of foie gras - because they fear a response, it's a clear sign that the activists are winning. And they are in more insidious ways than not being able to order this tasty treat at your next special outing.

Aided by a supine and scaredy - cat media even debating and discussing foie gras is being ruled out.

Thankfully the Huffington Post is not as craven. Here is the spiked article.

Second World War songstress Dame Vera Lynn is the latest celebrity to join the list of prominent figures - including Sir Roger Moore, Ricky Gervais, the Duchess of Hamilton and twitcher Bill Oddie - who have appealed to high end store Fortnum & Mason, one of the last remaining London shops selling foie gras, to pull the enlarged goose liver from its shelves.

Dame Vera claimed to be shocked to learn that Fortnum & Mason stocks "a product so cruel that its production is not allowed in the U.K." Her outburst follows last Christmas's publicity stunt which saw the Duchess of Hamilton return a gift of Christmas crackers to Fortnum & Mason in protest at the store continuing to sell the "delicacy of despair". For these culinary culture warriors, the force-feeding involved in the production of foie gras is barbaric animal cruelty that must be stopped by means fair or foul.

Unfortunately, the wind is in their sails. Last month online grocer Ocado, the last British supermarket to stock foie gras, announced that it had removed it from its shelves in response to a campaign by animal rights groups. Banning foie gras received royal approval after the Prince of Wales banned chefs in his residences from buying or using foie gras. Within weeks of being "named and shamed", six West Yorkshire restaurants removed foie gras from their menus. More than 45 restaurants in Gloucestershire have stopped selling it in recent years after being subjected to threats and protests.

The heart of the controversy is the practice of gavaging. Large quantities of corn pellets are funnelled down the bird's oesophagus in the last weeks of its life to increase the fat content of the liver. How would you like it?" the activists ask. Well, I wouldn't, but then again I'm not a duck. The last refuge of animal rights activists is anthropomorphism.

Gavaging may not be easy to stomach, but it isn't painful for the birds. Unlike humans, they lack a gag reflex. Their oesophagi have an insensitive coating, allowing them to swallow whole fish. The process mimics a natural process by which birds gorge themselves - their livers bloating to between six and ten times their normal size - before migratory flight. Even if the produced-for-foie gras birds never head south in the winter.

These campaigns to prohibit foie gras are perfect examples of how illiberal our times have become; private activities, such as eating, are fair game for moral posturing. They show, too, just how alienated we have become from the production of our food, especially when involving farm animals and poultry. For many of us, though, foie gras remains une fête gastronomique, one of the world's great flavours, on a par with caviar and truffles.

What's at stake here is the individual's right to choose what to consume and what to sell. In the end, as it should, the decision must come down to personal taste. Fortnum & Mason should be congratulated for holding the line against celebrity backed moralising.