What is foie gras, why is it cruel, and where is it banned?
Foie gras is a luxury food product that has been historically associated with France, but is now also produced in other parts of the world, including Hungary, Bulgaria, Spain, China, and the United States. It is considered a culinary delicacy, but its method of production raises serious animal welfare concerns.
Foie gras, which means “fatty liver” in English, is made by force-feeding waterfowl species, mainly ducks and geese, until their livers expand and become full of fat in a condition called steatosis. The birds are then slaughtered and their “fatty” livers are sold for people to eat. Foie gras is often offered on the menus of high-end restaurants and in specialty grocery stores. Some countries have banned the production of foie gras due to welfare concerns for the birds.
What is foie gras?
Foie gras is the liver of a young duck or goose who has been force-fed two or three times daily for 10-14 days and then killed. Force-feeding is accomplished by restraining the duck or goose, inserting a tube down the bird’s throat, and pumping large quantities of corn flour mixed with water into the esophagus. The frequent force-feeding causes the birds to develop a condition called hepatic steatosis — or fatty liver.
In certain breeds of ducks and geese, force-feeding a starchy diet in large quantities causes glucose to accumulate in the liver, which provides the chemical building blocks for fatty acid synthesis. As the force-feeding continues, the number of triglycerides and fatty acids in the liver exceeds the body’s ability to transport them or break them down. As a result, the liver grows to up to 10 times its normal weight, and becomes filled with fat.
This fat-filled liver is considered a delicacy in many areas of the world. Foie gras holds a particular cultural significance in Europe, although the practice didn’t originate there. Force-feeding birds to increase both body fat and liver size likely has an ancient origin, and may have first been practiced in Egypt around 2500 B.C. Scholars believe that force-feeding may have arisen after people observed how waterfowl eat excessively prior to migration to increase their fat stores — leading them to pervert what was a natural, adaptive process in these birds for their own ends. Possibly from Egypt, the practice might have spread to Greece, Rome, and eventually the rest of Europe.
For centuries, France has been the epicenter of foie gras production in Europe, and its status and practice are codified in Article L654-27-1 of French law, which states: “Foie gras is part of the cultural and gastronomic heritage protected in France. Foie gras means the liver of a duck or a goose specially fattened by force-feeding.” Other countries consider foie gras culturally and economically meaningful as well. Spain, though only the fourth-largest producer of foie gras in Europe, is the second-largest consumer of the product.
What is foie gras made of?
Traditionally, foie gras was made from the livers of geese, and grey Landes geese are still used for this purpose. However, from the 1950s onwards foie gras production moved from using solely geese to predominantly using ducks, and a special crossbreed was created between a male Muscovy duck and a female domestic duck (usually the Pekin). In the resulting crossbreed, called mulard, the male ducks are sterile. They are used for foie gras production, while female mulards are raised for meat. Barbary ducks are also sometimes used for foie gras production.
After male mulards and geese undergo around two weeks of force-feeding, they are slaughtered and their livers are removed to be sold as foie gras. The fattened liver is the actual product that is purchased and eaten as foie gras.
How is foie gras made?
Geese and ducks are bred and raised in barns until around 12 weeks of age. Up until this point, they may have room to move around and may also have limited access to the outside. Once they reach the age when force-feeding begins, they are transferred to single cages or small pens that drastically restrict their movement.
Two to three times daily, birds are caught by the neck and restrained by workers if they are in pens, and their heads and necks are stretched upward. If they are in individual cages, a worker may pull their head through a hole in the top of the cage. Then, a 15-25 centimeter tube is inserted down their esophagus and food is forcibly pumped in, distending the esophagus. Depending on the method used (whether by hand or using an automated pump), it may take just a few seconds or up to a minute.
This process is repeated until the birds are killed for human consumption. From the moment they are subjected to force-feeding, they are deprived of the ability to choose where they go or what and how much they eat for the rest of their short lives.
Why is foie gras controversial?
Foie gras is controversial because the process of confinement and force-feeding raises significant health and welfare concerns for ducks and geese. While force-feeding is often justified by producers on the basis that wild waterfowl naturally overeat to prepare for the rigors of migration, force-feeding methods in foie gras production subject birds to harmful and unnaturally excessive practices. In the wild, birds have the choice to stop eating before injury and discomfort occur — in foie gras production, there is no such choice.
Force-fed ducks and geese experience pain, injury, and distress. Birds are repeatedly captured and restrained, and metal tubes are inserted down their throat up to three times per day, which can cause increased cortisol levels as well as severely damaging cells and causing inflammation in the lining of the intestine. Studies suggest that acute stress levels in force-fed birds remain high throughout the force-feeding period.
The rapid distention of the lower esophagus that occurs when food is pumped down the tube results in pain and ongoing discomfort. This can also lead to esophageal injuries like tears and punctures. Force-feeding also causes increased physiological heat production — to deal with the expansion of the esophagus — as well as panting and diarrhea.
Ducks and geese are confined to cages and pens on slatted or wire floors, putting them at risk of foot injuries and pressure sores. They are unable to stand up fully, stretch their wings, or perform other normal behavioral functions necessary for their wellbeing. Importantly, they are unable to access water for swimming or bathing, which is a crucial behavioral requirement in waterfowl. As they gain weight, their mobility decreases. When they are transported to slaughter, they are more likely to suffer from bone fractures and injuries.
Why is foie gras cruel?
Foie gras production is cruel because it confines birds in distressing, unnatural circumstances that impact their ability to express normal behaviors essential for their welfare. Force-feeding also induces physical changes that cause discomfort, pain, and injury.
The adverse effects of force-feeding on ducks and geese are evidenced by the very high mortality rates in foie gras production. Based on studies in Europe, birds subjected to force-feeding have mortality rates between 2% and 4%. This is significantly higher than the mortality rates of birds who are not force-fed, which range around 0.2% in birds of the same age and sex.
Some reasons for this higher mortality may include heat stress, physical injury, and liver failure, although the causes of death rates in force-fed birds have not been fully investigated.
Force-feeding increases the fat content of a bird’s liver to over 50% (by comparison, an average liver has only 6.6% fat), and increases the size of the liver to 7-10 times normal. Hepatic steatosis has been shown to impair liver function and decrease blood flow to the liver, and would result in the death of the bird if they weren’t sent to slaughter. Inducing fatty liver in ducks and geese is thus creating a pathological condition with potentially severe consequences for the health of the bird.
In short, force-feeding to produce foie gras causes pain, distress, physical injury, and physiological dysfunction in birds. Ducks and geese are also confined in small spaces and deprived of natural environments and activities that promote their well-being. Additionally, foie gras production deprives birds of the ability to regulate their eating and movement in order to meet their needs.
Where is foie gras banned?
Because of the inherent cruelty of foie gras production, many countries have banned its production — which means it is illegal to force-feed birds to make foie gras. However, few have taken the additional steps of banning the import and sale of foie gras. This means markets still exist for foie gras, despite bans on production within countries.
Countries where foie gras production is banned:
The states of California and New York in the United States
Worldwide, only India has taken the additional step of banning production, import, and sale of foie gras.
The production of foie gras by force-feeding ducks and geese is an inhumane practice that causes physical pain and distress in birds. Animal protection groups have conducted undercover investigations on foie gras farms to reveal the cruelty of force-feeding and confinement. These investigations have documented ducks and geese having difficulty breathing, being roughly handled, bleeding, and unable to move normally.
Many countries have recognized that foie gras production is unethical and inhumane. However, as long as the majority of countries continue to allow the import and sale of foie gras, ducks and geese will continue to suffer in this industry.
You can help ducks and geese by supporting organizations that are raising awareness of the cruelty of foie gras and introducing legislation calling for it to be banned. You can also support laws that will protect birds from force-feeding, and make the compassionate choice not to consume any products made from animals.