Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Hudson Valley Foie Gras

I know my next post was going to be about the Pateria de Sousa production method, but I've just been sent this interesting American perspective on foie gras production that needed immediate posting. It came via Twitter from the writer, producer and presenter, Helen Hokin, of Foodtripper:

(Foie gras article from around 3:15 if you're in hurry, but the rest of the programme is also about all sorts of Hudson Valley foods.)

The main difference between US foie gras production and French seems to be that the ducks are reared in indoor sheds in the US, rather than having the option of open fields like they do in France. In contrast, the open pens used in US industrial operations are more similar to the artisan ones in France than the industrial cages. But the ethos on cruelty is basically identical.

Thanks Helen! X

I'll explain the all-natural non-force-feeding method next time...

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


I received a comment about this blog that, " (unsurprisingly) doesn't come across as very objective". This is an issue for me and has always been a sticking point for the potential book. Do I aim to be totally objective or concede to having a pro-foie gras standpoint? Because I personally like eating foie gras and creating foie gras recipes, and because I am arguing that its production isn't always inhumane, it's inevitable that I come across as pro-foie gras.

Maybe I need to accept that I am pro-foie gras, in that I really don't want this ancient industry to die out, when it is so much more wholesome than most meat production.

However, the purpose of this blog (and book) are not to convince people to eat foie gras, but to show that current media coverage of foie gras production is prejudicial. Most people don't know the truth and are basing their views about foie gras on - frankly - lies. I sincerely want people to be able to make informed decisions, and this necessitates informing them.

When I began my research I tried hard to be completely objective, and I think I did quite well. But I was working from the opposite perspective. I was expecting to be upset by what I found and was not looking forward to having to give up foie gras on ethical grounds.

I have had times when I've been disgusted and horrified at the animals' treatment (e.g. at an abattoir and force-feeding units for industrial production), but these made me realise how horrible factory farming is, and were not aspects unique to foie gras or required to produce it.

A stack of scared, cramped, filthy ducks,
just arrived at the abattoir.

Even when I first thought, "foie gras isn't soooo bad, due to the free-range aspect", I still thought you couldn't escape the fact that foie gras entails force-feeding, which is cruel.

Over time, I began to realise that even the dreaded force-feeding was not cruel in itself - see my force-feeding post. Nowadays I feel much happier eating artisan foie gras than factory farmed chicken.

So when I'm countering anti-foie gras arguments, I naturally sound pro-foie gras, even though I am simply offering the alternative viewpoint. I would say that I'm not particularly pro-foie gras, but pro-choice. No-one can make choices about foie gras based on only one perspective, but until now there was mainly only anti-foie gras information to go on.

Consumers' choices are not limited to foie gras vs no foie gras: If you don't mind the force-feeding but don't want to support the use of cages in its production, then seek out the kinder stuff and push local retailers to stock it. Provenance is the watchword in food, and packaging states 'free-range', 'barn eggs', 'grain fed', 'outdoor bred', 'organic' etc etc, so why shouldn't we be given information on how our foie gras is produced?

...and out the other side: The abattoir's
on-site shop

Monday, June 9, 2014

'Force' Feeding

The crux of the ethical issues surrounding foie gras production is force-feeding.

Ducks and geese store fat in their liver, and humans (who tend to store fat in their flesh) found that web-footed fowl who had fattened themselves for migration had extra delicious, fat, rich livers. They recreated this phenomenon using force-feeding (sometimes called 'stuffing' in American English), and 'fatty liver' or foie gras was the result. The point of force-feeding is not to create immensely fat birds, but to fatten them as you would any animal before slaughter, and, of course, to create a precious foie gras.

I always imagined that force-fed animals were pitiful, obese creatures that couldn’t walk or even stand up, their body mass too great to be supported by their little legs. This is simply not the case. They are perfectly able to walk about, preen themselves and do what they would normally do (if not stuck in a battery cage), and you probably wouldn’t be able to tell a force-fed duck from a conventionally fattened one, without an expert eye.

Some freshly extracted livers in Isabel Viresolvit's kitchen

• • •

Force-feeding involves putting high quantities of food down into the stomach of a bird, through a pipe with a metal nozzle that is inserted down its neck. The animals are fed softened maize or a maize flour and water paste twice a day, and each feed takes a few seconds per bird. The duck or goose would not naturally choose to eat 400g of maize, even if it were fattening itself for migration. (Although I was feeding a tame pheasant in Sussex yesterday who ate the equivalent in bread!) It would also not choose to have the pipe put down its throat. But is the experience really that awful for the birds? Is it possible that the force-feeding itself is not actually that cruel?

Would a cow choose to have painfully swollen udders every day and then have metal suckers stuck on their teats to relieve them? Just because cows in milk production spend a lot of time uncomfortable and in pain does not make it OK for foie gras birds to suffer during feeding, but this example helps illustrate how force-feeding is shrouded in misconception. Brits are used to the idea of cows being milked by a pump and pipes but not birds being fed by pumps and pipes. Neither are natural but that doesn't mean they're traumatic.

It may seem petty to argue over vocabulary, but the word ‘force’ does imply a lot of resistance from and suffering to the bird. It implies violence and cruelty. In other languages, terms for force-feeding don't include the word 'force'. I think this word has a lot to answer for in foie gras production being misunderstood in the English-speaking world.

• • •

If you watch a force-feeding session, you may be surprised at how calm the animals are, and how quick each dose of grain is to administer. The birds in battery cages try to move away and rattle around, bruising themselves on the cages while the farmer takes hold of their neck to insert the nozzle. Not nice to watch, but only due to the duck's confinement - the feeding itself seems harmless. Birds in the new communal cages seem quite calm. With artisan gavage, the farmer sits on a stool in the pen with the birds, grabs each one and puts it between their legs, holds the bird's head (with nozzle down the neck) with one hand, while gently massaging its neck with the other. The birds do not seem any more distressed than if you simply picked them up.

Isabel Viresolvit, a small-scale foie gras farmer who doesn't use cages, says she thinks she would know if the birds she feeds were flinching or in pain, and she is convinced they are not in any discomfort, although of course we can never know for sure. She has the often-held view that it is not possible to make good foie gras from unhappy birds, and indeed over-large livers from over-fed birds are scorned in France, both gastronomically (the too-high fat content means they disintegrate when cooked) and due to questionable husbandry.

Regardless of quantities of feed and cages, the feeder must be gentle and sensitive to the birds' reactions. If a bird's gullet is injured, they will die, and the foie gras will be lost - a total waste of investment and significant loss of profit for the farmer, whether they are an artisan farmer or own an industrial operation.

Isabel's ducks are valuable to her financially and because she is proud of the quality of her product. Her full order book is due to her good reputation, which in turn results from healthy, high welfare birds, and the care she takes over the food she makes from them. She feels she owes it to her ducks to ‘do right’ by the foie gras and other products. A low-paid factory farm worker is far more distanced from the creatures in their care and the bird's financial value, meaning that abuse and neglect are more likely in that kind of situation.

Olivier Audran, a goose foie gras farmer, tells me that geese are even more sensitive than ducks. Geese can only be force-fed during the season that they would naturally be fattening themselves for migration, and they die easily from stress. This means that even if a goose was fed carefully and was unhurt by force-feeding, if its general environment was stressful, it could still be lost.

Olivier Audran force-feeding his geese

Although gaveurs need to be gentle, and causing injuries is in no-one's interest, we also have to accept the fact that ducks and geese can deal with force-feeding in a way that humans could not. We don’t know what it feels like to be a duck or a goose, whose throat is lined with scales. If we endured the exact same force-feeding as foie gras birds, with our soft, sensitive throats, we would suffer. But ducks eat whole snails, frogs and fish - and stones! They have a gizzrd full of stones in fact, to help them grind up and digest all the hard, large and sharp things they swallow without chewing.

• • •

Scientific trials

It's all very well quoting doting farmers who think their birds don't mind being force-fed, but we should look at some impartial research into how foie gras ducks and geese react to it.

Livestock would normally move towards a person who regularly puts out feed for them, but foie gras birds don’t go to their feeder. Scientists at INRA (National Institute for Agricultural Research) in Tours and Bordeaux found that ducks showed some signs of aversion to force-feeding, but not total avoidance, and geese showed no signs of aversion at all.

Firstly, a test consisted of the birds being trained to be fed in a pen eight metres away from their rearing pen, and were then force-fed in the feeding pen. If force-feeding caused aversion, the birds would not spontaneously go to the feeding pen, but they chose to leave rearing pen.

Secondly, flight distances of ducks were measured from the person performing the force-feeding, and from a stranger. The experiment showed that, “The flight distance from the force feeder decreased during the force feeding period. Ducks always avoided the unknown person more than the force feeder. We concluded that there was no development of aversion to the force feeder during the force feeding process."

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Cages in Foie Gras Production

In France, you can buy artisan foie gras from the market. The farmers each have their own stand and are transparent about which method they have used for the last two weeks of a bird's life, during the 'gavage' (fattening): Either cages or no cages.

Prior to the gavage, artisanally farmed foie gras birds are raised free-range in fields with a barn for shelter, on the same farm (and by the same farmer) where they are fattened, killed, butchered and processed.

Ducks on an industrial scale farm, before the final two
weeks' fattening.

I know one farmer lady who chooses not to use cages (instead using straw-lined pens of around 1m x 3m for 6 ducks), while her husband opts for the cage method.

It's quite difficult to find and buy non-cage artisan foie gras in the UK. If you can find it on a website or source it directly from a French farm, it's very expensive to get it shipped. Maybe if demand for higher welfare foie gras increases, more of the bird-friendly foie gras will be produced and cages will be phased out entirely? That's my hope. That's a major reason for this blog's existence.

It's a sad fact that most duck foie gras is currently produced using cages to contain the birds for the last two weeks of their lives, even though they are free-range for the rest. Thankfully, individual battery cages have been banned in the EU, and will soon completely stop being used here - although elsewhere in the world is another story for another day.

When I first started researching and writing about foie gras 10 years ago, battery cages were still very much in use. In the factory farming system, birds are hatched in one place, moved to another farm to be raised in fields, moved somewhere else for the gavage, then to a slaughter house for death (very distressing to watch them arriving packed in boxes looking terrified before being hung upside down on this particular conveyor belt), butchery, processing and retail.

This means that one 'farm' does gavage, and gavage only. Battery cages made sure the birds didn't move and made the insertion of the feeding pipe easier and quicker by a couple of seconds for each bird. Time = money. The gavage man I visited at the time couldn't conceive of a system without battery cages. I'd like to visit him again to see how he's getting on with the new communal cages. I must just say that the guy was very pleasant and completely honest about his production facility. He compared himself to Bernard Mathews.

Some battery foie gras ducks in the miserable last two
weeks of their life.

An agricultural college local to me in France recently let me have a look at the new cages and see how they work at feeding time. Although not exactly pleasant to see, they were far, far, far, FAR kinder than the battery cages. The birds were calm, unstressed, able to move around. The whole atmosphere was different. I didn't have the urge to cry or let them all out, like I did at the battery cage place.

I am a big fan of the charity Compassion in World Farming, and actively support a lot of their campaigns. But I was angered by their recent 'ban foie gras' email. Why ban a truly ancient and traditional food that can be produced in a compassionate way and still be financially viable to produce? The problem is the cages not the foie gras, and the cages are not necessary to produce foie gras. They don't try to ban chicken because some is produced in hideous ways, or pork because most is unspeakably cruel to pigs. CiWF should be using their resources to campaign for the banning of cages or for clear labelling so that consumers can make an informed choice, and for more non-cage foie gras to be available everywhere, not just at French farmers markets.

So, there you are. The cage facts. I'll write more about the gavage outside the EU another day, and my next post will be about the actual feeding.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Beak to Tail & Fat Hypocrites

As described in this interview with me, none of a foie gras duck or goose goes to waste: "The legs go into cassoulet, the neck is stuffed like a sausage, breasts are the famous magret steaks, there’s a prized strip of fillet, other meat scraps go into tasty rillettes (potted meat), and the carcass is sold for soups and stock. You can even buy the tongues and blood cakes at the market." And I forgot to mention that gizzards are stewed until tender and used on luscious salads, while other innards go into the stuffed neck and pâtés. Down feathers are also sold for stuffing duvets and pillows. Beaks and tail feathers are probably chucked away, along with feet, so it's actually 'everything between beak and tail'.

You might not be able to get hold of all the body parts of a foie gras bird in the UK, but if you buy duck or goose fat for roasting potatoes, or French confit duck legs or cassoulet in a jar or tin, they probably come from foie gras birds.

Beware that if you search out British duck fat, it will not be free-range unless it says so. And factory farmed duck is far more cruel than any French foie gras. This is because even the cheapest factory farmed French foie gras birds are completely free-range in fields until the last two weeks of their life. The best duck foie gras and all goose foie gras comes from birds that are never caged, and are kept in a straw-lined pen for the two weeks of fattening.

I have tried contacting suppliers of duck and goose products (e.g. Le Canard Et La Lune) to shops like Harvey Nichols who have banned the sale of foie gras, but when I ask if they supply any products that do not come from foie gras birds they don't respond. This is probably because they assume I am against foie gras and want to expose their customers' hypocrisy and ultimately lose them that customer. Well, I do want to expose the hypocrisy, but not because I want the sale of their delicious and reasonably high welfare products to stop. Harvey Nics shouldn't have banned foie gras in the first place. Are all their posh dried sausages from free-range pigs? If not, they are lower welfare than foie gras. 'Outdoor bred' pork is also lower welfare and less free-range than foie gras, in terms of the proportion of livestock's time spent free-range.

Home-preserved goose foie gras

Friday, June 6, 2014

Once Upon A Time

Foie gras is one of my favourite foods, and eating it is almost a spiritual experience for me. The deep, earthy, umami and unfathomable richness transports me to another plain – my reflex is to close my eyes when savouring it.

The media portrayal and public perception of the way foie gras is produced means that lots of people find my enjoyment of it repellent. But the media’s view is skewed. Foie gras is not that bad! I want to tell everyone why it can be a guilt-free pleasure; more so than most animal products. But as with most foods, you need to know how to identify animal friendly foie gras.

• • •

Growing up, I was aware of an expensive luxury food called ‘foie gras’, that is produced in a way that is unbelievably cruel to animals. Grainy video footage portrayed dire conditions and disgusting force-fed geese that were too fat to stand. How could people do that to another living being? How could the rich gluttons who buy it live with themselves?

The alien concept of force-feeding seemed grim; forcing a creature to do something it doesn’t want to do, and hurting it in the process. So, why would anyone question the fact that foie gras is an unjustifiable indulgence? I certainly didn’t. Until I moved to France, and began writing about food.

• • •

I had tried foie gras before moving to France, putting my love of food and curiosity above animal welfare, because it was simply a gastronomic rite of passage. But the experience was tainted with guilt.

South West France (and other areas, like Alsace) is very proud of its foie gras-producing heritage. Residents vaguely know about attitudes in the UK and elsewhere, but they don’t really take them too seriously. Every type of person, from farm labourers to local dignitaries, enjoy foie gras as a special treat; the winter is one long series of foie gras markets and festivals; there is foie gras on every restaurant menu, and there are frequent roadside signs, directing drivers to farm shops selling foie gras.

Seeing the free-range ducks and geese on foie gras farms, I began to wonder exactly what went on that was so horrific. What I was seeing along with local opinions on foie gras didn’t tally with what I had been led to believe. I realised that I didn’t know exactly how foie gras is produced, so had no basis for my increasingly confused perception of it. So, I decided to do some research...

Salted foie gras, melting onto toast