The foie gras brûlée on Tony Conte‘s menu last week at The Oval Room was too tempting to pass up, no matter how many imaginary animal-welfare protesters I had dancing in my head. I say that even though the appetizer that landed on my table wasn’t custard-based at all. It was, in fact, a small cap of foie gras terrine perched on a round of toasted brioche and served with Meyer lemon and lavender.

As a final touch, Conte’s team had sprinkled Sugar in the Raw on top of the fatty liver and caramelized it, hence the brûlée descriptor. The starter was pure, unfiltered sensuousness — rich, smooth, crunchy, crackly, sweet, and tart. It was also suffused with the undeniable aroma of guilt.

Most of us who love engorged livers (but hate the methods to produce them) are already familiar with the animal welfare protestors who have been successful at getting politicians to heed their callat least for a little while. But today, I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times that looks at foie gras production from yet another unflattering perspective: the exploited farmworker.

Writes Bob Herbert from the Times:

…I’ve been looking at the plight of the underpaid, overworked and often gruesomely exploited farmworkers who feed and otherwise care for the ducks. Their lives are hard.

Each feeder, for example, is responsible for feeding 200 to 300 (or more) ducks – individually – three times a day. The feeder holds a duck between his or her knees, inserts a tube down the duck’s throat, and uses a motorized funnel to force the feed into the bird. Then on to the next duck, hour after hour, day after day, week after week.

The routine is brutal and not very sanitary. Each feeding takes about four hours and once the birds are assigned a feeder, no one else can be substituted during the 22-day force-feeding period that leads up to the slaughter. Substituting a feeder would upset the ducks, according to the owners of Hudson Valley Foie Gras, which operates the farm.

Not only do the feeders get no days off during that long stretch, and no overtime for any of the long hours, but they get very little time even to sleep each day. The feeding schedule for the ducks must be rigidly observed.

When I asked one of the owners, Izzy Yanay, about the lack of a day of rest, he said of the workers: “This notion that they need to rest is completely futile. They don’t like to rest. They want to work seven days.”

Covering this story has been like stepping back in time. Farmworkers in New York do not have the same legal rights and protections that other workers have, and the state’s multibillion-dollar agriculture industry has taken full advantage of that. The workers have no right to a day off or overtime pay. They don’t get any paid vacation or sick days. When I asked one worker if he knew of anyone who had a retirement plan, he laughed and laughed.

Hudson Valley, it should be noted, is one of the largest producers of foie gras in the country.

But there is hope for farmworkers, if not the animals. The Farmworker Fair Practices Act, which grants workers collective bargaining rights and unemployment benefits (among other rights), was passed on Monday night by the New York State Assembly. But now the bill heads to the state Senate, which suddenly and surprisingly came under Republican control on Monday. The bill’s fate is now uncertain.

Photo by tifotter via Flickr Creative Commons