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Foie Gras – great taste but bad practice?

September 2011 

Foie gras I have never given fois gras much thought. It is not something I have ever chosen on a menu and generally I thought of it as just a special type of meat pate. I had heard somewhere about force feeding ducks but there are so many dreadful practices in this world to fight against that this was one I hadn’t investigated... until now.

Just back from southern France, I was surprised at the level of advertising and road side hoardings offering foie gras. At a restaurant with friends (superb food I might add!) a speciality was a foie gras brulee which was absolutely delicious but set me wondering if this was real foie gras, from force fed birds.

The word is well known of course and is French for fat liver, which pretty well describes what it is, the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened. The thought of force feeding any animal, especially a sweet little duck, is totally abhorrent to me and I couldn’t believe so many people are still happy to let this procedure continue. I had to question my French friends about it all.

It didn’t take long for me to find out there are in fact two sides to the argument. The production of most modern foie gras is still the result of feeding a duck a lot more than it would normally consume.

But the points in the argument in favour of foie gras were considerable. For a start, I was told that ducks are naturally migratory birds, and because of this their food intake varies with the seasons. In the summer they will eat smaller amounts, but as winter approaches, in order to build up fat and reserves of energy for their migration, they naturally gorge themselves, eating far more than in earlier months.

In ducks, this excess fat builds up both under the skin and also in the liver and to produce a good quantity of foie gras, the liver needs to be fattened up as much as possible. Food is given to the ducks through feeding tubes. The idea of forcing food down a duck’s neck was the main aspect that made me feel the whole practice was totally repugnant.

However, it was explained to me that ducks are very different and shouldn’t be judged by our own experiences here. Ducks don’t have teeth and so don’t chew; they simply swallow their food including whole fish. This solid food is stored at the bottom of the duck’s esophagus in a stretchy pouch known as the crop. From here, it works its way into the duck’s stomach and gizzard. Ducks even swallow small rocks and pebbles which help them grind up their food. This means a duck’s esophagus is well suited to swelling up to deal with large quantities. It is also worth noting that ducks have a separate trachea to pass the air down into their lungs, so putting a tube down a duck’s throat will not affect its breathing.

The actual feeding process takes only a few seconds, and generally thanks to modern laws, ducks are kept in very humane conditions. I was told that if a duck was suffering, it would not produce good foie gras or any other meat; so it is important that ducks are kept in the best conditions possible.

Interestingly, if the excess feeding is stopped, the liver returns quickly to its normal size and leanness. I was also told that foie gras is healthy to eat because it contains omega-3 and fatty acids.

Personally, I still don’t like the idea and will be avoiding foie gras on my next visit to France. But in food production there are a lot of dubious animal practices out there and there are other areas that possibly deserve more immediate consideration. Many of the websites against the production of foie gras mainly criticise the bad conditions the ducks are kept in rather than the feeding systems. There is surprisingly little on the internet but some interesting information is available on the three following websites:

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