Animal Activist or Troll? Our Foie Gras Journey…

Is Foie Gras controversial? Yes. Is it a delicacy? For me definitely.
In my humble opinion Foie Gras is a beautiful thing and is incomparable to any other food stuff in the world. The velvety texture and buttery flavour is a thing of wonder. For me though it is also personal!
Before I tried Foie Gras for the first time, I like many others watched a decade old Peta video online and declared I would never eat such a thing. Then came a trip to Paris, problems with my French meant I ended up accidentally trying it for the first time. Wow! This accident made it much harder for me to resist Foie Gras in the future. I am a self-confessed foodie and many of my happiest memories include food. My fist solo trip to Paris is definitely one of those memories as is the night I got engaged to my husband in Palma when we drank champagne and ate Foie Gras. He loves it to too by the way, more than he loves me, I think!
When we decided to buy our second pub, a run down two room local that had not had any work done to it for over 25 years I don’t think we even had to discuss what we wanted to do with it. We just knew we wanted to bring everything we love about eating and drinking and share it with other people. What followed was a £650k refurbishment and a menu which allowed guests to try new flavours with those they love; a modern take on tapas if you will. It was a given that our version of the beautiful Foie Gras dish we ate the night we got engaged would be included on the menu. There it has sat on our menu since we opened in July 2016.
Activist Nonsense
But what about the PETA video’s I hear you ask? Well in a nutshell here is the argument I have repeated 100’s of times over the last 3 weeks. I believe Foie Gras production is the same as all meat and dairy production – there is good and there is bad. You have battery eggs (lots of PETA videos available), free range eggs (no PETA videos available), Mass produced Beef (lots of PETA videos available), Free range grass fed Beef (no PETA videos available) and many other examples. I believe Foie Gras is exactly the same there are good farms and there are bad but Activist organisations clearly do not care, sentiment beings just shouldn’t be killed for our gratification and Foie Gras is up there with Fox, Seal and Whale Hunting.
Activists scream “but what about Gavage? How would you like to be force fed?” Well no I wouldn’t but I am not a goose and physiologically a goose and a human are very different. Geese have no gag reflex and they do not breathe in the same way humans do, so not only can they still breathe during Gavage but the oesophagus of a Goose is hard like a finger nail. Its not like the easily torn tissue of a human throat. Force feeding Geese which are migratory birds and naturally Gorge makes it ridiculous to compare force feeding a goose to a human. I do gain weight in winter as it happens but I blame all the stew and my own love of food. Put another way – I wouldn’t like to have a metal shoe nailed into my foot but then I’m not a horse and horses do not object in the slightest.
Beware it could happen to you!
Three weeks ago, we received a public post on our face book wall. The post was from a lady who had dined with us and complimented both our food and service but went on to say she was dismayed to see we had Foie Gras on the menu and would not be returning until we removed it from the menu. I replied, thanked her for her kind comments and very politely explained that we do not believe in policing the choices of others and that I hoped she would change her mind about returning. Within 1 hour my phone was going crazy with notifications as one star reviews came flooding in from people all over the world and within 2 hours our previous unblemished five star Facebook rating had been reduced to 1.3 in just a few taps on a keyboard.
Either we had just had an international contingent descend on our pub and managed to deliver the worst service in the history of services or something else was going on. Turns out it was the latter. The lady who had originally posted her complaint had sent the response to her animal activist / internet troll friend who had posted it on over a dozen different animal activists websites and that was it, we were off on this crazy and horrifying journey! Naively believing that this was all a misunderstanding and that if we could just explain our position reason would prevail and the fake reviews would stop, we drafted a statement and posted it on our page. We may as well have poured vinegar on an open wound, calm the  intuation it didn’t it only seemed to aggravate. What I thought was a calm and rational explanation of our thoughts and feelings on animal welfare, fake reviews and the situation in general was met with abuse, ridicule, personal insults and a host of decade old pictures of Foie Gras production plastered all over our page.
This post went on to attract 1.2k comments and was seen by 20,000 people (every cloud and all that). To cut a long story short I blamed myself, blamed my writing, blamed Facebook and decided to correct the situation by writing a follow up post clarifying all the points from the first post that had been taken and twisted and identified me as the anti Christ.
Now I am not a writer as I am sure you are beginning to appreciate, but whatever I or other supporters wrote it made no difference it was indeed just like groundhog day. So the abuse continued, day after day. We sought advice and were advised not to engage to just let them get on with it or take it off quietly and wait until they have gone away. I’m from Liverpool and rolling over to bullying and blackmail is just not a Scouse trait I am aware of. I challenge anyone to take that much abuse and say nothing to defend yourself. So I continued to engage with the individual posts believing that reason would prevail if I could just engage one on one, have a sensible discussion and help them understand that things have changed etc etc. Wow, was I was wrong, turns out that’s just not how activists / keyboard trolls do things.
We were broken
Against everything we believe in we were about to cave in to bullying when Troll in Chief suddenly blackmailed us.
She explained she had organised a protest outside our premises but if we took Foie Gras off our menu she would cancel the protest & remove the fake reviews. We were to tag her with a link to our updated online menu and when our new menu was printed. Given that she is neither my mother (who I am indeed scared of), my priest (who I am also scared of) or my boss (which luckily is me) this was a step too far and the path ahead was sealed. We decided to fight back. We spoke to our local community and received the same message – this is idiotic don’t give in to them, the support was amazing. We also spoke to friends in hospitality and they spoke to their friends who spoke to their friends and support came flooding in from all over the world. Our review score started rising as five start reviews came flooding in. While many were real reviews from people who had just never rated us online before a lot were just fake reviews from supporters who had never been. Facebook doesn’t care if reviews are genuine so what the hell? Facebook reviews are like internet memes to me now – completely hilarious and totally irrelevant to my decision- making process.
In response, we declared we would arrange an anti-online bullying protest in the home town of chief troll, this proved a popular idea and my inbox was full of messages from her previous victims. Mostly from mothers who had given their children meat and faced her wrath before. In troll land giving a child meat is as bad as giving them a cigarette apparently.
Three weeks later as I write this our Facebook page is gone. Not because we gave in but because frankly it took on a life of its own and we don’t have the time to moderate it and Facebook will not let you anyway. The journey for which there is no playbook continues, there has been international press coverage and their protest is planned for next week.
We didn’t contact the press, the activists did but then they didn’t like that the coverage sided with us so accused us of pulling a PR stunt. I have learnt much more about animal activists and online bullying in the last three weeks than I ever wished to. For instance, I can tell you that online harassment makes you feel threatened and alone. It makes you anxious and irritable and causes huge stress for yourself and your family and it must be stopped. I have had a glimpse of why 1 in 8 young people who are bullied online ends up attempting suicide. We are older and have a great deal of support but for others; especially those who feel alone; the mental effects must be horrendous.
The Future Outlook
Democratic protest is a right and I have no objection against those who wish to protest although I do wish they would get their facts straight and stop peddling the same old 10 year old propaganda but that’s another story and a battle for another day. I have also discovered it is not just Foie Gras that enrages them either, Jamie Oliver’s Bristol eatery was recently targeted and his only crime was to go on TV and encourage more people to buy Organic, Free range milk. His reasoning was that happy cows make tastier milk. A noble quest for animal welfare some might think but to the activists he made the fatal mistake of implying cows could be happy. There are no happy cows they wailed on their keyboards. I live surrounded by cows and they look pretty happy to me but as I am apparently devoid of any caring about animal suffering what would I know?
If they succeed in removing Foie Gras what is next? Who will next to face their wrath? Will they stop until we are all Vegan? Well it’s our business, we employed the capital and took the all the risk to create The Bridge Inn that has pleased our target audience and created new jobs in our community. Our guests like what we do, sales are growing and aside from the trolls feedback is excellent, so we soldier on.
If I could go back in time would I do anything differently? No I wouldn’t but only time will tell whether the playbook we have adopted works.
Foie Gras is still on our menu and will remain there for as long as our customers want it. We will not be bullied or blackmailed by an online mob to dismiss our own knowledge, judgements and values. We hope to see more restaurants stand up in the same way and hope that activist groups change their methods when they disagree with what a restaurant sells. We hope social media review sites and governments take more responsibility for the damage online attacks can have on individuals and business that are every economies engine of growth.
We are currently working with various people to try and put something together so people who do decide to stand up will have international support, resources and advice. We want an overhaul of the review system so restaurants can no longer be targeted with fake online reviews. We could not have done this without the support of our local community or our global chef community and we know we are incredibly lucky. We want to make sure every restaurant is afforded the same.
If people don’t like something about our business they can vote with their feet and choose not to dine with us. This is their choice. What we sell and why is our choice and will remain so.
Samantha McHattie

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