Foie gras, or fatty liver, is banned in many countries, and also in the state of California.
What is foie gras?
For centuries, foie gras has been a renowned delicacy in French cuisine. Foie Gras, literally translating to fat liver from the French, belonging to either a goose or a duck, is a dish known for its delicate, buttery taste which has stolen the hearts of many.
Traditionally, foie gras is produced through a process of force feeding called gavage, in which a large amount of grain is administered to a fowl in the last weeks of its life before slaughter in order to significantly fatten its liver. This practice is mainly carried out in Alsace and throughout the south west of the country in areas such as Aquitaine and the Midi- Pyrénées, which produce 80% of the world’s foie gras.
The practice of gavage goes back as far as 2498 B.C.-2345 B.C. where the first records of gavage have been found in Egyptian pictograms depicting forcibly-fattened geese being served as a prized dish to the reigning monarchy.
Today, maize is commonly used as the primary component of the birds’ feed, which is boiled and mixed with high carbohydrate and fat content to make the feed both fattening and easier to digest. In order to force this mixture into the bird, a funnel is attached to a long tube which houses an auger (an endless screw) powered by an electric motor which forces the feed down into the esophagus. This feeding process usually lasts 45-60 seconds, however in larger operations it has been reported that the same quantity of food has been fed in just 2-3 seconds.
Gavage is a delicate operation as the tube or the large amounts of feed administered can easily tear or split the esophagus. For ducks, gavage usually happens twice a day over 12-15 days, while geese are fed three meals per day for anywhere between 15-21 days.
Since gavage occurs multiple times throughout the day, birds are usually kept in small group pens or more commonly, in individual cages. Individual cages are preferred because it makes the catching and force feeding process easier, as the bird has to be restrained in order for the tube and feed to be administered down the esophagus. Most cages are structured so that the bird’s head can protrude out of the top of the cage while leaving the body confined with little room to move around or extend its wings.
Effects of force feeding
Because large amounts of feed are forced into the birds in a very short amount of time throughout the day, gavage has been known to cause organs like the stomach to rupture. Amongst the other side effects of force feeding and cage confinement are kidney necrosis, spleen damage, foot infections, bruised and broken bills, and tumor sized lumps in the throat.
According to a study done by the European Commission: “Daily hand-feeding of ducks and geese is normally associated with a positive response by the animals towards the person feeding them. In the preparation of this report, members of the Committee visited a number of farms practicing force feeding but this behavior was not observed by the visitors on these occasions. When ducks or geese were in a pen during the force feeding procedure, they kept away from the person who would force feed them even though that person normally supplied them with food. At the end of the force feeding procedure, the birds were less well able to move and were usually panting but they still moved away from or tried to move away from the person who had force fed them.”
Saying no to foie gras
In July, 2012, all sales and production of foie gras in California was effectively banned according to a law that was passed back in 2004. Individual cities throughout the world have also effected a ban on the sale of foie gras, but not always its production.
The practice of force feeding has been made illegal in the U.K., Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, Finland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, and Israel, although the sale of foie gras is still allowed.
Foie gras as a seasonal product
An alternative to gavage has been developed to cultivate fatty goose liver seasonally by using geese’s natural instincts to fatten up before winter.
In 2008, Chef Dan Barber gave a Ted Talk on his experience with farmer Eduardo Sousa who makes foie gras through this natural, seasonal process. The trick, however, is that the geese can have no sense of captivity or domestication and must retain their natural instincts in order to live a practically wild life.
Sousa’s geese are allowed to roam freely around his property in Spain, eating from their choice of a variety of vegetation which he has planted on his farm. His geese are only fenced in for a very brief period when they are young and graze of their own accord—never being fed by humans.
In his talk, Chef Barber recalled the history of foie gras and the birth of gavage. He states that once the reigning Pharoah had tasted this delicacy, he demanded it in large quantities all year long. As geese only fatten themselves before winter, a process was formed in order to forcibly fatten them to produce foie gras throughout the year.
In a way, the story of foie gras production is the story of industrial agriculture which constantly finds unsustainable and often inhumane ways to fight against seasonality in order to produce a consistent supply of seasonal foods all year long.
Replicating this natural process to produce foie gras has proven to be a great challenge for Chef Barber. Taking what he learned from Sousa, Chef Barber gave this method a try at his own organic farm in New York called Stone Barns which provides food for his restaurant. The two biggest challenges he faced were in creating a totally natural environment for the birds that did not relate any sense of captivity or domestication and then finding birds which had retained their natural instincts.
To house wild geese, no pens or fences could be used, which exposed them to predators and their own habit of wandering off the property. Also, the geese could never come into physical contact with humans as both the touch and the oils from our skin would relate a sense of nurturing and domestication, which meant the birds would have to be born on the farm (not bought and shipped in) and raised only by other geese.
And then there was the problem with the geese themselves who had been bred out of their natural instincts to mate or defend themselves as well as to protect and raise their young—even to the point in which mother geese would not sit on their eggs, as humans have taken care of the incubation process for so long.
After 3 years of attempting to replicate Sousa’s process, Chef Barber has not yet succeeded. However, still dedicated to what Chef Barber described as the best foie gras he has ever had, he is taking on the challenge once again this year.
At the end of the day, although producing a delectable dish, raising geese in this manner may not be an entirely profitable business. Sousa looses up to 30% of his geese to predators or other natural conditions ever year, and the labor intensive practices that Chef Barber has taken on in his attempt to create a natural setting have proven to be expensive.
In the absence of a viable alternative to gavage, an increasing number of states, cities, and individuals are saying no to one of the most delicious, yet inhumane dishes.
The Foie Gras Wars
Author: Mark Card
“Take a dish with a funny French name, add ducks, top it all off with celebrity chefs eating each other’s livers, and that’s entertainment,” Caro writes. Yet as absurd as battling over bloated waterfowl organs might seem, the controversy struck a serious chord even among those who had never tasted the stuff.