The shark’s fin debate: Are some foods too cruel to eat?

In Food, Vancouver and Region by Lenore NewmanLeave a Comment

The city of Vancouver is considering a ban on the sale of shark’s fin, which has stirred up a debate between those who claim the food is tainted by unusual animal cruelty versus those who say a ban is culturally insensitive. Several other cities, including Toronto, have already implemented a ban, and it is likely to pass here as well.

Shark’s fin soup is an interesting food, dating back at least to the Ming dynasty. Because the main ingredient was relatively rare, it became a food used on special occasions, or as a show of respect. What is interesting is that the fins have almost no flavour; it is the texture that is coveted. The fins are said to have a very specific mix of crunch and flexibility that lends a very tactile aspect to the soup.  The problem is that as demand has increased the price of shark’s fin has spurred increasing harvesting, and often the fishermen simply cut off the fins and then toss the shark, alive but fatally injured, back into the sea. As a single fin can be worth several hundred dollars, it is likely pressure will continue to rise on shark populations.

As a food theorist I am in favour of the ban; there are so many wonderful flavours and textures in the world of food that there is no need to continue needlessly cruel practices. And so I would propose that Vancouver address claims of cultural insensitivity by banning a European food on grounds of cruelty as well: foie gras.

Foie gras, or the liver of a goose force-fed a diet of corn, has a much wider western audience, but is equally as cruel. The process of gavage, or force-feeding, has long been targeted as a needless form of animal abuse. Canada is also much more complicit in foie gras production, as we are the world’s fifth largest producer of the product. A ban would not be breaking new ground, either; California banned foie gras this summer.

Though I am sure many foodies will disagree with me, I think it is long past the time we start talking about practices that are too cruel for the modern table, or that put too much pressure on threatened or endangered species. There are enough interesting foods out there to sate every craving even if we decide to ban a handful of foods that no longer fit into a modern ethical framework.

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