What Is Foie Gras and Why Is It Cruel To Ducks and Geese?

June 24, 2019

Foie gras might be considered a delicacy, but the suffering that goes into its creation is cause for alarm. In fact, there are activists around the world working to ban its very existence.

Reading Time: 10 minutes

What Is Foie Gras and Why Is It Cruel To Ducks and Geese?

Foie gras might be considered a delicacy, but the suffering that goes into its creation is cause for alarm. In fact, there are activists around the world working to ban its very existence.

Foie gras is a delicacy from France made from the fatty liver of ducks and geese that have been force-fed via long tubes to fatten them up quickly and efficiently. 

As you can imagine, this process is not an enjoyable one for the birds and states like California have been working for years to ban the sale of it (and to keep it banned).

what is foie gras

What is Foie Gras?

Foie gras is a meal originating from France made from the fatty liver of ducks. Surprisingly, it is still considered a “delicacy” and consumed around the world, though the process behind the food is extremely cruel and unusual.

Many people, meat-eaters included, are coming around to the fact that the treatment of the birds leading up to their slaughter is extremely inhumane. Because of that, foie gras has been banned in a lot of countries and there are campaigns happening around the world to end the practice altogether.

What Does Foie Gras Mean?

Foie gras is a French term meaning “fatty liver.” 

Farmers noticed that before migration, waterfowl – such as ducks and geese – would overeat to increase their fat stores before their flight. This would increase the fat in their livers.

This modified the taste when they were eaten, so in order to capitalize on this occurrence, farmers started force-feeding birds to mimic the natural process to see if they could mimic what they noticed happening in nature for their own taste.

Why is Foie Gras Cruel?

why is foie gras cruel

Image via Stop Gavage

As mentioned above, engorging the liver was a natural process of waterfowl as they prepared to migrate. In nature,the excess fat in the liver serves as the fuel they needed to make the long trek ahead.

Once these birds were domesticated, farmers realized they could recreate the process by shoving long tubes down the birds’ throats and force-feeding them until they were “engorged” enough.

The technical term for force-feeding is gavage, meaning “the administration of food or drugs by force, especially to an animal, typically through a tube leading down the throat to the stomach.”

As you would expect, having a long tube forced down your throat to the point where you have no choice but to surrender is a frightening and painful situation for these birds.

Animal Equality conducted an investigation of four foie gras producers and you can watch their disturbing findings below. What you will see is considered  “standard practice” within the foie gras industry. 

How do you feel after watching that? I doubt hungry is what comes to mind. At least I sure hope not.

The cruelty, unfortunately, does not stop after feeding time. Most foie gras farms keep birds in small pens or cages where they can barely move and must share their space with countless others. Transportation and slaughter comes with its own complications.

Lack of space mixed with daily force-feeding (at least twice per day) leads to infections, esophageal damage, impaired liver function, and even aspiration pneumonia from when the grain mixture enters the birds’ lungs instead of their stomachs. It is not uncommon for birds to suffocate on their own vomit, either.

Daily force-feeding also leads to stress, bruising, and difficulty moving because their livers are growing at an unsustainably rapid rate.

Is Foie Gras Illegal in the United States?

California was the first US state to enact a ban on the sale of foie gras. The ban was originally introduced in 2004, but did not take effect until eight years later in 2012 to give producers time to investigate more “humane” methods.

Over the course of seven years after the ban went into full effect, foie gras producers and restaurants fought the ban, and in 2016, the ban was actually lifted. This change caused a foie gras frenzy in the California restaurants that didn’t see it necessary to cede padding their pockets while inflicting one of the worst cruelties in the animal industry.

Fast forward to January of 2019 and the Supreme Court rejected a proposal to change the ban once again, meaning that it is still currently in full effect and violators can be issued a $1,000 fine per violation.

Companies like Postmates are taking a stand against this cruelty as well by no longer delivering foie gras to consumers.

Which Countries Have Banned Foie Gras?

which countries have banned foie gras

Foie gras is a “delicacy” with a disturbing backstory, and many countries have banned it altogether, including Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, and the U.K.

In addition to banning the production of foie gras, India has also banned the importation of foie gras, meaning that it cannot legally be sold anywhere in the country.

How Much Does Foie Gras Cost?

Ducks and geese raised for foie gras are fed at least twice per day, so the cost of feed alone is higher than raising your average chicken.

Ducks and geese also take longer to fully mature than a chicken, so they are eating large amounts of food for a longer period of time.

Foie gras is deservedly a controversial dish, as you can imagine, so this hinders production since there are only a handful of farms who still produce foie gras in the United States today.

Michaela DeSoucey, the author of “Contested Tastes: Foie Gras and the Politics of Food,” stated that “Nobody in their right mind would open a foie gras farm. Somebody tried to open a farm in Indiana about a decade ago and quickly decided that they couldn’t handle the political aspect of it.

But still, in an industry built on the suffering of animals, money is the main motivator. One pound of foie gras can go from $50–$90 without taking into the costs of preparation at a restaurant.

That might seem expensive to you, but that cost pales in comparison to the price these innocent animals must pay each day to produce it.

Animal Welfare

Foie gras might be a delicacy for someone’s taste buds, but it is hell on earth for the animals that are bred, fattened, and slaughtered to produce it.

animal cruelty foie gras

Image via Farm Sanctuary

Suitability of breeds and species

There are typically three types of birds used to produce foie gras: the grey Landes goose, the Barbary duck, and the Mulard duck.

Ducks account for around 95% of foie gras production because they are easier to breed and fatten than geese, but those with a palate more sophisticated in the cruel art of producing it often prefer goose foie gras. Not any goose will do, though, because some store fat around their muscles instead of their livers.

In terms of ducks, the Barbary and Mulard ducks are commonly found on foie gras farms based on their docile demeanor and ability to store large amounts of fat in the right places.

Force Feeding Procedure

As seen in the video above, metal tubes are forced down the throats of captive geese and ducks up to three times per day.

The feed administered is a mixture of corn and fat meant to enlarge the liver rapidly. The amount of this mixture is increased each day, but the liver cannot sustain this type of growth and inflates up to 10x its normal size.

Being chased down, immobilized, and forced to eat until the point of engorgement is not only incredibly traumatizing and unhealthy for the birds, but completely unethical for a human to engage in.

Fear

animal suffering foie gras

Image via Farm Sanctuary

Geese and ducks are often kept in small cages only a little bigger than their bodies inside dark sheds. As you can imagine, this environment is significantly different than the freedom their cousins get to enjoy in the wild.

In an undercover investigation conducted by Mercy for Animals, one worker says that “force-feeding is so traumatic many birds die from it.”

Birds are being scared literally to death so someone can enjoy their engorged livers. That seems wrong, doesn’t it?

Injury

foie gras treatment of birds

Image via Farm Sanctuary

Workers are required to feed hundreds of birds each day, so in order to stay on schedule they must work quickly.

This fast-paced environment means that the potential for cruelty is incredibly high. IN the rare cases of free-range birds, they try to run as they are grabbed and held, usually between the worker’s knees, while caged birds have nowhere to hide.

A long metal pole is then shoved deep into their throats to administer the feed. In this process, birds are susceptible to bruising of their bills, damage and rupturing of their esophagus and organs, as well as the discomfort of being overfed.

An investigation at Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York found that each worker was expected to feed 500 birds each day – three times per day.

Trying to hold down and feed 500 birds multiple times per day means that you must work quickly with little regard to animal welfare.

Ducks often suffer from ruptured organs from force-feeding, so Hudson Valley actually offered a bonus for workers who killed less than 50 birds per month.

Let that sink in… workers were given a reward for only killing 50 birds per month.

One worker admitted that tumors were common as a result of this aggressive feeding technique and that one duck “had a maggot-ridden neck wound so severe that water spilled out of it when he drank.”

Stress

Ducks and geese instinctively seek to fulfill their natural behaviors like exploring and swimming. Lack of access to natural behavior makes their conditions inside a foie gras farm unbearable.

Not only do these birds get stressed by the fact that a metal pole is crammed down their throats three times per day for reasons unbeknownst to them, but there are other psychological aspects to being overcrowded, pinned down, and kept in the dark.

Ducks tend to avoid areas where they have been force-fed and become especially frantic in the presence of unfamiliar handlers.

These animals are mistreated every day, multiple times per day, for weeks or even months until they are slaughtered around 100 days old.

Ducks become anxious when they do not have access to water, and lack of water also leads to insufficient grooming. If ducks do not groom themselves, they can get infections of the eyes and nostrils, which is especially common due to the chaotic nature of the force-feeding which often leaves ducks and geese covered in feed.

Water is also needed for thermoregulation and lack of it can lead to heat stroke – especially within the crowded and hot confined of a foie gras barn.

Housing and husbandry

foie gras housing

housing and husbandry foie gras

By now you know that geese and ducks are force-fed multiple times per day so humans can eat their engorged livers, but what happens to the birds during the other hours of the day? 

Behavioral restriction

When birds are not being fed, they are often kept in cages either by themselves or in small groups. These cages are normally made with wire or slatted floors meaning that the birds’ webbed feet have a hard time standing normally.

Birds that are caged individually are restricted from moving around or investigating like they would in the wild. Their wings are pinned to their sides and they cannot even turn around in these conditions.

Excrement covers the cage floors and the ground below, and birds are often found encrusted in the leftover feed from prior force-feedings.

Ducks and geese enjoy socializing, swimming, and flying, but all of these pleasures are taken from them inside these sheds. They are kept in dimly lit rooms to prevent normal behaviors such as investigating their surroundings.

For the birds that are lucky enough to be called “free-range,” their conditions are improved slightly since they are at least able to roam around.

These birds are still subject to the same capture, immobilization, and force-feeding procedures of the caged birds, and suffer from cramped conditions and lack of access to fresh outside air and their natural habitats.

Injury

Foie gras birds are susceptible to bruised beaks, aspiration pneumonia, and chronic stress from daily force-feedings.

Caged birds often get bruises and lesions from the metal wires, but this can occur from struggles with a handler as well.

During transportation, birds are often found with broken bones from being handled aggressively or reckless shifting during the drive. Heat stress is also a killer of birds in transport as well as those in cages inside barns.

Enlarged liver

The grey Landes goose, the Barbary duck, and the Mulard duck are commonly used because of their ability to store fat around their liver as well as their ability to naturally inflate their necks.

In the wild, this neck enlargement attribute is useful because they can swallow fish whole and digest them later. Foie gras farmers now use this natural occurrence as their gain because they can fit a long tube down their throats with minimal effort.

The livers of these birds change seasonally to prepare for migration and naturally can increase by 30-50%. Force-fed foie gras birds’ livers can enlarge up to 10x their normal size, and veterinarians agree that this over-engorgement is not similar to the natural process.

A normal duck liver weighs around 76 grams with a fat content of 6.6%, but a force-fed duck’s liver can weigh up to 980 grams with a fat content of 55.8%

The rapid growth and stress on these birds’ livers, as well as their joints and other organs, leads to difficulty breathing, inability to regulate body temperature, and extreme exhaustion. These are all signs telltale of liver disease and failure.
Humans are forcing birds into liver failure so they can then consume the diseased liver. No part of that process screams “delicacy” to me.

Mortality rates

Mortality rate investigations have been conducted in France, Belgium, and Spain. The findings showed that  2–5% of birds died during the feeding period, which was around 14 days, than the mere .2% of birds that were not force fed.

Compared to conventional duck farming, force-fed birds are 10–25 times more likely to die during the feeding stages, which can last anywhere from 12–18 days.

Conclusion

Foie gras might be considered a delicacy to some, but for the birds who endure constant engorgement, it is a nightmare.

There is a reason this dish has been banned from many cities, countries, and provinces around the world – it is cruel and vicious.

If you are an avid foie gras connoisseur, consider trying something arguably more delicious that did not involve a single animal life ruined by perpetual suffering, like the Faux Gras BOSH! recipe

Birds are not here for us to exploit and consume, and they deserve the same respect and freedom as any other sentient being.

Taylor Meek
Taylor Meek is a Social Media Coordinator and Contributing Author at Sentient Media. Before joining Sentient Media, she was a New Media Intern at The Humane League. Taylor can be followed on Twitter at @taylorthemeek and Instagram at @crueltyfreecravings

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