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To call foie gras controversial would be an understatement. To produce foie gras, male ducks and geese are force-fed by poorly paid farm workers several times a day until their livers become fatty and diseased. The resulting pale white meat of the liver is then sold to high-end restaurants for a few wealthy people to enjoy. Few food items are so widely viewed as cruel, or so succinctly capture the dynamics of an inequitable food industry. Even King Charles III of England has taken a stand, banning its consumption in all his residences.
The term “foie gras” is the French for “fatty liver,” and foie gras is literally the deliberately fattened liver of a duck or goose. The fattiness is accomplished via force-feeding, leading the product to be banned in many places. In 2021, almost 118 million tons of foie gras were produced in the European Union alone. European Union countries account for about 90 percent of foie gras production, with the remaining 10 percent produced primarily in China, Canada, and the United States. In Europe, France produces almost 70 percent of the foie gras while Hungary, Bulgaria, Spain, and Belgium produce the rest. In the United States, domestic foie gras comes primarily from just two farms.
Though traditionally foie gras is the fattened liver of a goose, more than 90 percent of the foie gras now produced comes from ducks. This shift is due to the fact that force-feeding ducks is easier than force-feeding geese.
Fattened goose livers account for only 5 percent of foie gras currently being produced. Despite this, or perhaps due in part to its rarity, goose foie gras is perceived as a superior foie gras to some fans and can be more prized than duck foie gras. The breed of goose most commonly raised and force-fed to produce foie gras is the grey Landes goose. Different species of geese gain weight and store fat differently. While Polish geese tend to gain weight around their muscles and body, grey Landes geese gain weight in their livers.
Most foie gras comes from ducks. The two breeds of duck most frequently raised for foie gras are Muscovy (or Barbary) ducks and mulard ducks. Ducks are favored for foie gras production over geese because they are behaviorally easier to handle. All the foie gras produced in the United States comes from ducks.
Despite France being where most foie gras is produced and consumed, French farmers have little to do with the food’s origin story. Geese were first force-fed by Egyptians who were likely interested in the process as a means of creating oil rather than to fatten the birds’ livers for eating. The force-feeding can be seen in paintings dating back to 2500 BCE. Romans were the first to force-feed geese for foie gras. They would feed the geese dried figs to give a sweet taste to the fattened, diseased livers. Recipes on how to prepare foie gras started appearing in books during the eighteenth century.
Pâté and foie gras are not necessarily the same thing, though they are easily confused. Pâté is a concoction made by blending meat and fat with other ingredients, whereas foie gras is the fattened liver of a goose or duck. Foie gras can be made into a pâté but it is not always eaten as such.
In order to produce foie gras, ducks and geese are subjected to two phases: pre-feeding and feeding.
During the pre-feeding phase the birds are allowed to consume food freely. Generally this phase of their lives lasts until they have developed their feathers at around 12 weeks of age.
Once birds are 12 weeks old, they are moved to either small individual cages or group pens where they are housed during the force-feeding phase.1 During the force-feeding phase, birds have an increasing amount of food administered to them through a tube placed down the throat in a process called gavage. The birds are force-fed several times a day. This period usually lasts two to three weeks before the birds are slaughtered and their livers harvested.
The breeds of duck and goose raised for foie gras are chosen primarily because of their temperament and their physiology. In order to be force-fed birds must be easily handled. This is a big reason why ducks have become more commonly raised for foie gras than geese. The duck most commonly used for foie gras is the mulard duck, a cross between a Peking duck and a Muscovy duck. These ducks are favored by the foie gras industry because their livers tend to get fattier as the birds gain weight, instead of the fat being added to other places on their bodies.
The process of forcing a tube down a bird’s esophagus and then shoving up to 450 grams of food down it two or three times a day for weeks exposes the birds to the possibility of injury due to rough handling. The force-feeding is also in excess of what the bird would normally consume. If the force-feeding process were to be paused, birds would then be likely to fast for up to three days, suggesting that the force-feeding goes beyond the limits of the birds’ satiety and comfort.
The breed of duck that is most often raised for foie gras is more fearful of people than most other breeds. This means that they are likely to experience a greater amount of fear during feedings.
Injury can result from a variety of different factors. During feedings, a bird’s esophagus and throat could be injured due to poor handling. They are also more susceptible to heat stress than birds that are not fattened.
In order to be force-fed, ducks and geese must be captured by handlers. Being captured and held leads to stress for the ducks.
To provide opportunities for ducks to socialize, they tend to be housed in small pens. This means that catching the birds for force-feeding can be more effort and lead to greater stress for the ducks. The force-feeding also increases their susceptibility to heat stress and bone breakages during transport.
During the fattening process, a bird’s liver can increase in size by up to 10 times, and will end up being more than 50 percent fat. Due to its condition, the organ is no longer able to function at full capacity and blood flow is reduced.
Mortality rates for birds that are being force-fed are significantly higher than birds of the same age that are not undergoing the process. Studies in Belgium, France, and Spain have seen mortality rates between 2 and 4 percent for birds being force-fed, that is, one bird in 25 or 50 dying during the period of being force-fed. The mortality rate for birds not experiencing gavage sits at around 0.2 percent, or one bird in 500. So the mortality rate for birds being force fed is 10 to 20 times higher than that of birds not being force-fed.
Whether foie gras is healthy has been a topic of debate. One recent study based on results in mice notably showed that consumption of foie gras may be linked to amyloidosis, the build up of a particular protein that can impact the functioning of organs.2
Efforts have been made to ban the sale of foie gras in the United States. However, these efforts have failed and most of the country still allows the sale of these diseased livers.
Several jurisdictions around the world, including in the U.S., have banned the sale of foie gras. Some of these include:
The ban was approved by voters in 2019 and was supposed to go into effect in 2022. However, the ban was challenged in court and the legal battle is ongoing.
California originally banned foie gras in 2004 though legal challenges pushed the effective date of the ban out to 2012.
Turkey banned the production of foie gras in their animal protection law which prevents the force-feeding of animals for any purpose other than the health of the animal.
India banned the import of foie gras in 2014 making it the first country to ban the import and not just the production of the product.
Australia has banned the production of foie gras within its borders but not its consumption, sale, or import.
Argentina has banned the production of foie gras since 2003.
Force-feeding geese has been illegal in Israel since 2003.
In the U.K. the production of foie gras is banned but there is nothing stopping the import of the product.
Foie gras has been banned primarily on grounds of animal welfare. The Humane Society of the United States and other entities asked the Food and Drug Administration to prevent the sale of foie gras for human food on the basis of health in 2007. However, the petition was unsuccessful.
The reasons why foie gras should be banned are many: birds are overfed, mortality rates are higher, and the handling is stressful for the birds, among other animal welfare issues. Those who support foie gras may argue that the farms in the United States support hundreds of jobs and are helping to maintain their local communities. However, the farms in the U.S. are only able to make a profit by taking advantage of and underpaying their workers, most of whom are immigrants from Mexico and Central America, many of them undocumented. Often workers are only paid a few hundred dollars a week despite living, and working, in upstate New York. Despite the fact that she is processing birds with livers that will likely sell for $150 or more, one worker at a foie gras farm makes only $380 a week, which comes to less than $20,000 annually.
Question around the ethics of foie gras stem from the treatment of the ducks and geese who are raised and overfed to produce the fatty, diseased livers considered a delicacy.
Foie gras is labor intensive to produce. Birds are force-fed by hand several times a day. This, combined with the small number of producers of foie gras and the small amount obtained from each bird, plus the tradition of the food being a delicacy, result in an expensive item.
Vegan foie gras can be made at home using a combination of cashews, cocoa butter, nutritional yeast, cognac and other ingredients, resulting in a savory and rich final product with a texture very similar to its animal-derived inspiration. Depending on where you live, you may also be able to purchase vegan foie gras at the grocery store.
Foie gras is considered to be a delicacy by many. It’s a delicacy that most of us will never try, however, whether due to its astronomical price point or our moral compass. In order to produce the food, ducks and geese are repeatedly force-fed past the point of satiety. There are alternative products that do not require the suffering of animals.
Warren Skippon, “The Animal Health and Welfare Consequences of Foie Gras Production,” The Canadian Veterinary Journal 54, no. 4 (April 2013): 403–404, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3595949/.
Alan Solomon et al., “Amyloidogenic Potential of Foie Gras,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, no. 26 (June, 2007): 10998–11001, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.070084810.