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Food•6 min read
Foie gras directly translates to “fat liver,” which is exactly what it is. Learn more about the birds who suffer so that people can eat this so-called delicacy.
Words by Grace Hussain
The controversy over foie gras remains heated as countries, states, and even municipalities ban the food, while others treasure it as part of their heritage despite the suffering it causes. In order to fatten the livers of ducks and geese to produce foie gras, the birds are fed a nutritionally incomplete diet, at such a high volume that they would die from it if they were not slaughtered at a young age.
Foie gras directly translates from French to English as “fat liver,” which is exactly what it is. To produce foie gras, geese and ducks are prevented from exercising and are force-fed, in a process called gavage, so that their livers grow abnormally fat. Once the birds have been slaughtered and their livers harvested, the organs are shipped to grocery stores and restaurants to be sold and served as a delicacy.
The process of gavage is carried out over the last few weeks of a bird’s life. The liver is fattened by placing a metal or plastic tube down the throat several times a day to administer feed. To most efficiently achieve the largest possible liver the food given via the tube is made up mostly of corn. The first feeding typically consists of about 0.4 pounds of food being given to the bird in mere seconds. This is increased over time until the last feeding, during which 1 pound is given. This is far more than a duck or goose would consume if left to feed freely.
Though foie gras was originally sourced primarily from geese, the vast majority produced today comes from ducks, specifically Mulards. Mulard ducks are a hybrid of Muscovy ducks and domestic ducks, most often Pekins, and are most commonly raised for foie gras due to their propensity for accumulating fat in the liver rather than elsewhere in the body.
The process by which ducks and geese are force-fed to enlarge their livers comes with great risk to the health of the bird. It begins at 10–14 weeks of age and continues to 12–21 days. Birds are fed several times a day. During feeding, birds have either a metal or plastic tube placed down their throats and the corn feed is then thrust into the bird’s esophagus. If the bird struggles against the feeding it runs the risk of puncturing its own esophagus, inflammation of the neck, or even asphyxiating because of its handling.
The avoidance that birds display during the force-feeding phase suggests that they find the process thoroughly unpleasant. One would expect that hand-feeding birds would elicit a positive response in which the bird eagerly anticipates and responds to the handler providing the meal. This is not the case for birds experiencing gavage. Instead, birds in force-feeding pens avoid the handler feeding them. Following the feeding, even though birds have greater difficulty walking and are often panting, they attempt to move away from the handler.
The likelihood of injury and death prior to slaughter is much higher for birds being raised for their diseased liver than for those being raised for other kinds of meat. In fact, if the birds were not slaughtered when they are, they would quickly succumb to the damage being caused to their liver. Handling and tube placement can cause damage to the delicate esophagus, making future feedings even more painful. The large amount of feed being given causes obesity, making it difficult for the birds to move and breathe normally. The insertion of the tube can also cause injury to the beak, which is very sensitive and contains numerous nerves.
The behavior of birds during the gavage period of their lives indicates that force-feeding is highly stressful. This is particularly evident from the avoidance behavior of the birds toward the force-feeding pens and the person who feeds them. Whereas birds raised without force-feeding are eager for the chance to eat, those experiencing gavage move away from their handler or try to avoid the entrance to the force-feeding pen. Another indication that the birds are uncomfortable and stressed by the force-feeding is that they shake their heads after being fed. Typically head-shaking indicates a foreign or bad-tasting material in the mouth.
There are a number of issues with the housing experienced by birds raised for foie gras. Prior to the force-feeding period, ducks and geese being raised for foie gras are typically housed in a large barn. Sometimes they have access to the outdoors, but they typically don’t have adequate water for swimming, despite being water birds. Their situation gets worse when they are old enough to be moved to the gavage area. During the force-feeding period of their lives, birds are housed in small group pens or cages. Ducks may also be housed alone in a cage too small for them to stand, spread their wings, or turn around. The floors of these cages can cause painful foot injuries.
The feeding period for ducks and geese raised for foie gras causes several health issues for the birds. These include liver disease, specifically fatty degeneration—a condition characterized by an abnormally high number of fat cells. A healthy duck or goose liver comprises about 5 percent fat whereas the liver of a bird following the force-feeding phase is made up of about 50 to 60 percent fat. This unnatural change in liver composition and size reduces the liver’s efficacy at processing fats and filtering toxins. Veterinary examination of birds following the force-feeding period has revealed brain damage caused by toxins in the blood, which the liver was unable to filter. During the force-feeding period of their lives, the livers of ducks and geese are engorged to ten times their normal size. This rapid liver growth leads to an enlarged abdomen, causing an abnormal, and sometimes painful, gait.
The mortality rate of birds during just the gavage period of life is estimated to be between 2 and 5 percent. This is equivalent to the mortality rate of the entire 12-week lifespan of birds raised for meat consumption, including the period following hatching during which they are especially vulnerable.
Several countries and states have taken the important step of banning foie gras. Despite this the diseased liver of ducks and geese is still considered a delicacy in many places, especially in France.
In 2022, a ban on the sale of foie gras will take effect in New York City, one of the largest markets for the food in the United States. The ban was originally sponsored by Councilperson Carlina Rivera of Manhattan, who pointed out that foie gras production was both a luxury and one of the most inhumane practices in food production.
The production of foie gras in Turkey was effectively banned in July 2004, in Turkey’s Animal Protection Law. Along with providing other protections to animals across the country and in various industries, the law prevents the force-feeding of animals for any reason other than health.
In 2014, India made the landmark decision to ban the import of foie gras. This effectively means that the food cannot be served anywhere in the country.
Foie gras is banned in many places because the force-feeding of ducks and geese to make a luxury product is opulent and cruel. The force-feeding results in birds who struggle to walk and breathe because such a large proportion of their body cavity is taken up by their liver. The practice is so torturous that even the Pope and Prince of Wales have spoken out against it.
Despite liver generally being one of the least expensive meats to buy, just four ounces of foie gras currently costs $30. This high price can be attributed to the additional labor that force-feeding individual animals require, coupled with scarcity. There are only a handful of farms that produce foie gras, and only three in the United States.
Birds suffer immensely so that their diseased livers can be enjoyed by a handful of wealthy individuals at high-end restaurants and on holidays. Despite the suffering that takes place to produce foie gras, some still demand its production. This is especially true in France, where the product is a staple at Christmas and other celebrations. Thankfully, producing foie gras without gavage or even slaughter is now possible due to the development of lab-grown foie gras. Though animal cells are still collected from a duck egg so they can be replicated to create the final product, this is a far cry from the suffering of millions of ducks and geese that the foie gras industry presently demands.
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