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Inside Our Food

The Ethics of Foie Gras

A symbol of "haute cuisine", the story of foie gras began in Ancient Egypt. Produced by gavaging ducks and geese to enlarge their livers, the foie gras production process has been a subject of controversy throughout the centuries. As consumers become more conscious of the sources of their food, many are asking: is there a more ethical way to produce foie gras?

What is foie gras? 

Enjoyed in the 21st century as a gourmet dish, foie gras was first created by Ancient Egyptians. Observing that the livers of geese enlarge significantly when they consume large amounts to prepare for migration, Ancient Egyptians replicated this process by force-feeding geese with figs to produce a fattened liver.1

Today, ‘Fig Liver’ is hailed as a culinary delicacy. In France, fattened goose or duck liver became known as ‘foie gras’, meaning ‘fat liver’. The liver fattening process ignites a chemical change within the birds’ livers, creating a smooth texture not found in birds that are not gavaged.7

Foie Gras can be eaten whole or in forms such as pâté, mousse or terrine. Synonymous with French fine dining, it is known by the culinary encyclopedia Larousse Gastronomique as ‘one of the jewels in the crown of French Gastronomy’. Traditionally enjoyed during festivities in France, foie gras is now consumed year-round due to its increased availability.2
 

Fun fact: France remains the primary producer and consumer of foie gras, producing over 75% of the world’s foie gras; other non-EU producing countries include the US and China.2, 4

How is foie gras produced? 

Foie Gras is defined in French Law as ‘the liver of a duck or goose fattened by gavage (force-feeding)’. During the ‘pre-fattening phase’ which occurs when ducks and geese between ~0 to 12 weeks of age, they are raised in a conventional manner; this starts with housing them in a closed, heated building within the first ~4 weeks and a free-range environment during the latter ~8 weeks. Ducks and geese are free to eat at will during this period, though during the latter eight weeks, mealtimes will be restricted to stimulate the digestive function required during the following ‘fattening’ phase.  

The ‘liver fattening’ or ‘gavaging’ phase begins when the birds are between ~12 to 18 weeks of age. During this period, typically lasting 2 to 3 weeks, the birds are force-fed a controlled amount of feed up to 3 to 4 times a day. Although Ancient Egyptians gavaged these birds on figs, modern foie gras production uses corn as feed due to its high starch content and lower price.5

Traditionally, a funnel attached to a long tube inserts food directly into the bird’s oesophagus. If producers use an auger (a mechanical drill) attached to a pipe, each feeding lasts around 45 to 60 seconds. Newer pumping systems have enabled even more efficient feeding, shortening the feeding period to 2 to 3 seconds and allowing producers to feed more birds in one day. 5, 6

The intensive nature of fatty liver production means the birds need to be confined within a small space during gavaging, usually in wire pens. This prevents excessive movement, enabling the birds’ bodies to focus on fattening, and also streamlines the force-feeding process for the producers. According to the European Federation of Foie Gras (Euro Foie Gras), ‘Palmipeds (web-footed birds including ducks and geese) live in collective housing for a few days during the fattening phase’.8

During the gavaging period, the liver increases to a final weight of ~600g to 1000g. The EU regulation on marketing standards of poultry meat requires duck livers to weigh at least 300g, while goose livers must weigh at least 400g.8, 9 However, as producers are often paid per pound of foie gras produced, the birds are often gavaged until their livers are ten times their usual volume, from an initial ~80g to a final weight of ~600g to 1000g. After the gavaging period, the birds are stunned and processed. 

The animal welfare debate

In Europe, foie gras production is subject to an EU Directive concerning the protection of animals for farming purposes.10 Euro Foie Gras also published a Charter outlining 12 animal welfare principles as additional standards to European legislation.11

Despite this, many animal rights advocacy groups argue that foie gras production constitutes inhumane treatment of animals. They highlight the detrimental effects this process has on palmipeds, including stress and fear responses, oesophagus damage and breathing impairment.12

Animal welfare concerns led to the filing of multiple lawsuits and the enactment of legislation banning foie gras production around the world. As of 2016, only five European countries still produce foie gras: Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Hungary and Spain.13 At the same time, most countries still allow foie gras imports, with India being the only country that bans both the production and import of foie gras.14  

Earlier this year, the UK’s proposal to ban foie gras imports to improve animal welfare has been met with resistance by Euro Foie Gras. Citing scientific studies, the Federation argues foie gras production is not cruel because the anatomies of palmipeds are adapted to the rapid intake and storage of large quantities of food. 

Interestingly, this argument dates back to Jewish consumption of foie gras during the 11th century; whereas some believed foie gras consumption went against Jewish law prohibiting infliction of animal suffering, some rabbis claimed that foie gras was not forbidden since no limbs were harmed or discomfort caused.2

Are there alternative ways to produce foie gras? 

Although foie gras production remains controversial, Chef Dan Barber’s viral 2008 TED Talk ‘The Surprising Parable of foie gras’ showed that a more natural way to produce foie gras is possible. Dan Barber shares the story of Spanish farmer Eduardo Sousa, who raises his geese on pastures and allows them to gorge on food instinctively until the liver-fattening process occurs naturally.15 Sousa explains, “If geese think they’re about to begin a 3000 km trip north, they’ll store as much fat as they can. No gavage is necessary.” 7

Growing concerns for animal welfare have led to an increased availability of ‘humane’ or ‘ethical’ foie gras in the market. On top of Sousa’s brand La Patereria de Sousa, the Spanish brand ‘Labourdette’ also produces ‘Natural foie gras’ by working with the birds’ natural fat storage instinct. 

However, the availability of ethical foie gras has been put into question. For instance, Sousa’s foie gras costs €199 for 180g, compared to €64 for 180g of goose liver foie from renowned French brand Petrossian and  €70 for 200g of duck liver foie with truffles from British retailer Harrods. Sousa’s foie gras also has a long waiting list since only a small number of livers are produced yearly.16 

There have also been other innovations in ethical foie gras production which leverage modern technology to replicate the smoothness of fattened livers. For example, German company Foie Royale scientifically combines livers from free-range ducks and geese with fat cells to emulate the much-loved fatty texture.17 Compared to Sousa’s foie gras, Foie Royale’s products are at a lower price point, ranging from €15.99 for 80g of duck liver foie and €19.99 for 80g of goose liver foie.18

Despite industry concerns about the scalability and higher prices of ethical foie gras, the debut of various ethical foie gras brands on the market reflects a shift in consumer demand for more ethical production practices. Whether foie gras production is ethical at all is still up for debate, and gives us reason to reflect before reaching for the pâté during our next holiday dinner. 

 

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References
  1. Williams, Elizabeth M., and Stephanie Jane Carter, eds. The AZ Encyclopedia of Food Controversies and the Law [2 volumes]. ABC-CLIO, 2010.
  2. Lavine, (2013), ‘Foie Gras: The Indelicate Delicacy’, Moment Mag, Accessed December 9th 2021.
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