With the exception of endangered species, there can be few more controversial luxury foods than foie gras.
Revered by gastronomes for its richness and delicate taste, reviled by animal lovers for what they say is the cruelty of the production method, there’s no doubt that foie gras arouses passions on both sides. So what are the facts?
Put simply, foie gras is the liver of ducks or geese that have been specially fattened. However, the words ‘specially fattened’ are a bit of a euphemism; the traditional method of fattening (gavage) involves force-feeding the bird through a tube with corn boiled up with fat. This process is carried on for two or three weeks before the bird is slaughtered.
There are other methods of getting fatty goose liver, which involve allowing the bird to eat freely in the run-up to the time when they’d usually migrate (migrating ducks and geese naturally build up stores of fat, including in their liver). But many gourmets say that these alternatives are a pale shadow of true foie gras.
In any event, to meet the French legal definition of foie gras, the bird must be force-fed – so if it comes from France and bears the name foie gras, gavage is involved.
Several countries – including most European countries – have banned the production of foie gras, either specifically or (as in the UK’s case) through general legislation on animal welfare. Apart from France, the only EU countries still producing foie gras are Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary and Spain.
Some US jurisdictions have gone further. Chicago City Council went as far as banning the sale of foie gras in 2006, following a very public spat in the pages of the Chicago Tribune between two of the city’s leading restaurateurs – but rescinded the ban in 2008 after several restaurants defied the ban. Chicago’s mayor Richard Daley criticised the council for picking up on the issue to the neglect of far more important and urgent ones. California has also banned the production and sale of foie gras, in legislation due to enter into force in 2012.
Much of the controversy centres upon the question of whether the birds suffer during the process. Opponents say that the process goes far beyond the birds’ natural fattening in preparation for migrating, leading eventually to death; that in any case, the swelling of the birds’ abdomens makes it difficult for them to breathe and walk; and that the birds’ oesophagi are often damaged by the metal tubes used.
Producers, on the other hand, say that the gavage process simply makes use of the bird’s natural physiology; that every effort is made to ensure that the bird isn’t harmed physically; and that slaughter takes place before the bird’s health would suffer from the force-feeding. They also point out that the process is reversible – the livers of birds no longer undergoing force-feeding return to their normal size within a few weeks.
So who’s right? Ultimately, animals bred for food are going to suffer stress at some point. The question is: how much, and for how long? Obviously circumstances vary between producers, but here are just a few points to bear in mind:
- Birds don’t have the same physiology as mammals, let alone humans. There’s no danger of them choking in the gavage process; their oesophagi are tougher than the typical mammal’s; and their livers do naturally store fat – foie gras is not ‘diseased’.
- Studies have shown that geese and ducks undergoing gavage suffer less stress than birds in the wild – although animal welfare campaigners have cast doubt on the impartiality of these studies (the French public research institute INRA, for example, has received grant funding from the foie gras industry).
- Arguments based on the conditions in which the birds are kept are a red herring. Cages are not a necessary part of the gavage process. By all means let’s have a campaign against cramped and unsanitary conditions, but it should take in all livestock farmers.
Chefs differ. Albert Roux opposes force-feeding and says that more humane methods should be used. Anthony Bourdain sees nothing wrong in the practice itself, as long as the birds are treated humanely and kept properly, and has said so in his programme No Reservations:
[Obsolete video removed. 5 December 2016]
I have tried foie gras myself. (I can’t say I’m a huge fan – it’s very rich, a bit too much so for me.) I was a bit uneasy at having done so – years of hearing the horror stories about it, I suppose. But after reading up about it for myself, I’m reassured that foie gras isn’t cruel in itself and see no reason to ban it.