Food History & Politics, Ingredients

  • Date Posted: 13 February, 2013

Foie gras: sublime gastronomic pleasure or animal cruelty?


Author: Adele Stiehler 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu won’t eat it. Neither will author JM Coetzee who calls it a repellent practice. Chris Chameleon will leave the table if it is served. As of 1 July 2012 no restaurant in the state of California is allowed to sell it.

Foie gras has always been a controversial luxury ingredient but despite the trend of protecting artisan food production, criticism of foie gras seems to increase, especially with the recent ban on sales and production of the fatty liver in California.

The weeks before the ban saw a human “gavage” with foie gras dinners on offer all over California.  Most restaurants apparently removed it from their menus since the ban but according to news reports a daring few found a way to continue serving the delicacy: Exuberant prices are charged for brioche and fruit compotes that are served with “complementary” foie gras, as the current legislation does not forbid chefs to give it away for free.

Exactly who and how the enforcement will work, also seems to be a mystery but a fine of $1000 per day is supposed to be the penalty for restaurants that continue selling foie gras.

The French (who produce 78% of the world’s foie gras) have taken the ban very personal with a politician from foie gras producing Gascony calling on all French restaurants to ban California wines in solidarity with the foie gras industry.

Although the ban will not have a significant impact on the French markets as they consume most of what they produce the French are apparently concerned that the ban would spread to other countries.

Locally foie gras also made headlines early last year when the NSPCA confiscated local producer Bon Canard’s Muscovy ducks and laid a criminal charge of animal cruelty apparently relating to the cage sizes and the controversial “gavage” technique used to fatten the ducks.

“There was never any cruelty in our process, there are many misconceptions about the production,” said Rhoda Diedericks from Bon Canard. They were producing foie gras for 15 years with the SPCA apparently often on their farm even witnessing the feeding process.

Several European countries have banned the production of foie gras by banning force feeding of animals but have not banned the import or sale of foie gras, while other countries including South Africa interpret their animal cruelty laws as banning the force feeding of animals for foie gras production.

French foie gras producer Rougie agree that there are many misconceptions about how foie gras is made and the company is determined to legitimate concerns and expose some of the “spectacular lies” that they say have been spread by a “very active and violent minority.”

Mr. Guy de Saint-Laurent, Rougie’s director of commercial export, hosted a lunch towards the end of last year with local foie gras importer Sagra Food and Wine Merchants and distributor La Marina to shed light on the production of the luxury ingredient that California chefs defended as a “key component in their culinary repertoire”.

According to Darryn Lazarus from Sagra Food and Wine Merchants South Africans are consuming more foie gras as there has been a significant increase in imports over the past few years.

Foie gras’ roots lie in antiquity with the ancient Egyptians as the first to produce the controversial delicacy. They noticed that migrating ducks gorged themselves and their livers fattened as a result. The Egyptians copied the process by feeding the ducks figs.

 Today in France Landes goose, Muscovy ducks and Mulard ducks are used for foie gras production, with mulard ducks used for 95% of the production. Mulard ducks are a cross between the Muscovy duck from South America and the common Peking duck from the South of China. According to Rougie’s study the ducks retain the same ability of migrating ducks to reserve great quantities of energy in the form of fat in their liver although they no longer migrate. After migration the duck’s liver returns to its natural size.

The fattening process or “gavage” as it is known in France is usually the focus of animal rights activists accusing the process of cruelty. The ducks are fattened by administering corn through a tube inserted down the duck’s esophagus.

Rougie defends the use of this technique explaining that the digestive system in ducks and geese are unique in that the esophagus is not directly linked to the stomach but to an extendable pouch called the crop. The crop holds the grains for moistening before releasing the corn to the stomach so grains are released to the stomach progressively allowing the duck to ingest large quantities of grain without suffering harm.

It is also highlighted that the esophagus of aquatic birds has the unique trait that it is very strong and resistant. With ducks not having teeth for cutting or mashing food their keratinized esophageal walls allow the duck to ingest entire vertebrates such as fish or small mammals.

Ducks are not force fed through their entire life, but only for the last two weeks. During the first four weeks ducklings eat as much as they want and live indoors in buildings equipped with radiating heaters and a density of forty to fifty ducklings per square meter.  Next follows the four week development stage where ducks also have free access to outside areas and the density is seven ducklings per square meter. Ducks still continue to eat at will and feeding areas are situated both inside and outside.

From their ninth week of life the ducklings have become ducks and they are prepared for fattening. The living conditions remain the same and ducks can eat as much as they want, but at set times and for a limited time only.

In the twelfth or thirteenth week the fattening process begins. At this stage the ducks weigh between 3.8 and 4.5 kg and for twelve days they receive two high carbohydrate meals per day to reach a weight of 5.2-5.5kg. The livers weigh 300g at the start of fattening but will weigh between 450 and 600g in the end. During the fattening stage the ducks are indoors and their activity is limited – some in collective pens of twelve ducks or in individual cages, but the cage system will totally disappear in France by December 2015.

“The ducks are fed one at a time using gestures both gentle and firm, which are precise and peaceful” states the Rougie report. For the experienced hand the process lasts no more than ten seconds at a time.

The panting of ducks during the fattening process is sometimes presented as proof of suffering but Rougie argue that it is a physiological reaction to the higher temperature and extra energy stimulated by the fattening and that good cooling systems in the facilities are crucial to relax the ducks. The birds do not have sweat glands and their feathers isolate much of the heat so the ducks release excessive heat through their respiratory track by hyperventilating opening their beaks and panting.

Before slaughter the ducks in the Rougie operation are put to sleep through electronarcosis to desensitize them. Next the ducks are bled and once dead is plucked and washed before being sent to the gutting room in order to remove the prized liver immediately, while the carcass is still warm.

Both Rougie and Bon Canard argue that to obtain the best foie gras the comfort and well-being of ducks are crucial.  Rougie also quote in their defense a 2007 study from the National Institute of Agriculture (INRA): “While several animal protection groups campaign for a legal ban on fattening, it is necessary to objectivize the consequences of the practice for palmipeds. To date not a single result that we have obtained in a multidisciplinary study supports the criticisms concerning this production and does not justify their claims.” – D. Guemene INRA: Productions animals.

The South African NSPCA however insists that there is no humane way to produce foie gras “and that the food is inherently inhumane.”

No Foie Gras South Africa (NFGSA) is a local organization that opposes the production and consumption of foie gras and has listed many of the country’s top restaurants on their “Wall of shame” for serving the French delicacy. The organization organizes protests and encourages it members to ask restaurants that serve foie gras to remove it from its menus.

To state their case NFGSA often refers to the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare report of 1998 that concluded that “force feeding, as currently practiced, is detrimental to the welfare of the birds.”

According to a 2009 scientific study against foie gras by prof. Ian Duncan, Special Advisor on Farm Animal Welfare at the British Columbia SPCA, ducks avoid the force-feeding pen as well as the person who feeds them and this indicates that the procedure is unpleasant to them.

Duncan also argues that the feeding regime is not comparable to the voluntary gorging that migratory waterfowl perform and he recommends that the production of foie gras can only continue if routine feeding methods that causes stress or discomfort to the birds are not used; that any induced increase in liver size or fat content does not impair liver function and only if housing systems providing adequate space permitting normal behavior is used.

Both studies are also concerned about the mortality rate during the fattening process, but according to Rougie, the mortality rate is inferior to the average for other animal production farms.

An alternative addressing activists concerns has come from Spain where “humane foie gras” is produced without force feeding. The slaughter is timed to coincide with the winter migration allowing geese to stock up on extra food naturally in preparation of their expected long flight south.  Because the process happens naturally the geese are only slaughtered once a year and the livers are more expensive than the traditional product.

Although Eduardo Sousa’s “ethical foie gras” has already won the Coup de Coeur award from the Paris International Food Salon some argue that it does not conform to the French legal definition for foie gras and there are still debates about the quality of the liver produced.

Many chefs when posed with the question of foie gras do not respond to it as an isolated  food production system and but prefer to discuss it in the greater context of food production often comparing it to feedlots and battery farming systems that are also accused of excessive cruelty but receive far less attention.

As writer Christopher Hope explains the production of foie gras in British television chef Rick Stein’s French Odyssey: “It is what happens with most of what we eat. We don’t always like what we see, but we do like what we eat.”

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