Drive through the gently rolling hills of the Gers in the south west of France and you won’t go half a kilometre without spotting a sign advertising foie gras. It’s the engine of the local economy here - supplying not only France’s insatiable appetite for this most sensuous of luxury foods but the rest of the world’s too.
One wonders for how much longer. Foie gras seems to be going the same way as fur. Many countries - including Britain - ban its production. Chicago has gone one further and outlawed its sale with California set to follow suit by 2012. Recently a Michelin-starred restaurant, Midsummer House in Cambridge was forced to take it off the menu after activists vandalised the premises. Councils in Stockport, Bolton and Norwich have banned it from council functions and even luxury department stores Harvey Nichols and Fortnum & Mason have removed it from their shelves.
How much justification is there for all of this? Is the practice of force feeding really as cruel as its critics make out or is it just a fashionable bandwagon on which assorted celebrities and savvy chefs who know how to stay one step ahead of public opinion have jumped?
Never having seen the process at first hand I took up an invitation from Vincent Labeyrie of London’s Club Gascon, which has always featured a cutting edge selection of foie gras dishes, to visit his main supplier, Tomasella in the tiny hamlet of Aignan not far from Auch.
Like most producers in France nowadays the Tomasellas rear ducks rather than geese, a hybrid variety called mulard which is particularly suited to foie gras production. Ducks are more robust, easier to feed and less prone to disease than geese explains M. Tomasella and although goose livers have a superior quality and texture most customers are not prepared to pay a premium for them. There are also more by-products from ducks in the form of magrets (duck breasts) and confit which the Tomasellas sell from their very chic farm shop.
The chicks (all male - female duck livers are apparently too heavily veined) arrive at the farm when they’re 8 days old. I’m taken to a large airy barn where some 1000 black and yellow balls of fluff are milling around, cheeping, impossibly picturesque. There’s easy access to water, clean straw and the air smells fresh and sweet. So far so good.
The chicks stay indoors for about 15 days at 20-22°C, depending on the weather than go out into open fields until about they around four to four and a half months (in more industrial ‘farms’ this can be as little as 10-11 weeks). During this time they are fed around 170g-180g a day of wheat and corn, both GM free and grown on the Tomasellas’ own farm. This is obviously a richer diet than the birds would feed on in the wild and a far better quality one than in more commercial concerns where the feed is likely to be an aggregated pellet of all kinds of protein including animal by-products. But it was startling to see just how big the ducks were, waddling in ungainly fashion like an infirm and overweight pensioner.
The final stage is the controversial ‘gavage’ or force feeding which lasts for 14 days. I had naively expected this to be done by hand but instead the ducks are transferred back indoors to cages where a hopper delivers electronically measured amounts of whole corn down a funnel which is inserted down their throats.
Why does it have to be whole corn? “Because they digest it better and it produces a better quality of foie gras.” explains M Tomasella. “If we used ground corn the process would take longer”
He strokes the duck’s neck as the feed goes down. The process is over in a few seconds. Apparently in industrial scale operations ducks are fed through a pneumatic pump. They process about 400 ducks an hour rather than the 150 the Tomasellas do on their farm.
So, few of us, if we knew what was involved, would probably want to eat commercially produced foie gras but what’s the problem here? The premises are kept clean and are not overcrowded. The ducks are unstressed, eager even for the food. In such a small-scale operation they know their handler
There are two, in my view. First, the sheer volume of food the birds are ingesting which by the end of the process amounts to 500g twice a day - one kilo of feed. During their short lives a foie gras duck’s liver increases up to 10 times ending up weighing between 500 and 800g. Fifty per cent of that is fat. Force feeding impairs the ability of the birds’ liver to process and excrete food. Obviously they are killed at the end of this period but if continued they would most likely die anyway.
Secondly it’s hard to see big birds restrained 24 hours a day in such small cages (they are 22cm wide and 65cm long). M Tomasella argues that they are better off because don’t wander off and harm themselves but if they weren’t so obese that wouldn’t happen. They can’t adopt their normal behaviour of standing up and flapping their wings.
According to a report by the Scientific Committee for Animal Health and Welfare which was published in 1998, a high percentage of ducks that are force fed in individual cages are discovered to have lesions of the sternum and bone fractures at the abattoir. I saw no evidence of that at Tomasellas but the birds were certainly cramped.
What do you say to people who think it’s cruel? I asked M. Tomasella. “If the ducks suffer they won’t produce top foie gras” he replied simply. “We want the birds to feed happily without stress so we get the best result.”
An honest answer yet it left me feeling profoundly uneasy. True, this is a time honoured, artisanal process. True, we fatten other animals such as pigs. True, the ducks seemed unstressed, positively greedy but is it right to fatten a creature to the extent that it can’t walk for the sake of a luxury product we don’t really need?Foie gras lover though I have been, I can no longer accept that it is and after my visit, quite contrary to my expectations, I’ve decided not to eat it any more.
For those who can’t contemplate life without foie gras there is a solution. A Spanish firm called Pateria de Souza has created a method of production which allows their birds (geese rather than ducks ) enough food to gorge themselves naturally before dispatching them. It’s in limited supply (available in the UK at Selfridges) and considerably more expensive than conventional foie gras but for anyone who wants to have their foie gras fix as humanely as possible it’s an option.
This article first appeared in the May 2008 issue of Decanter