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Is foie gras worth it?

FIONA BECKETT finds out just what happens to a foie gras duck in order to produce this controversial delicacy Decanter magazine May 2008

Drive through the gently rolling hills of the Gers in southwest France and you won’t go half a kilometre without spotting a sign advertising foie gras. It’s the engine of the local economy here – supplying not only France’s insatiable appetite for this most sensuous of luxury foods but the rest of the world’s too.

One wonders for how much longer. Foie gras seems to be going the same way

as fur. Many countries, including Britain, ban its production. Chicago has gone one

further and outlawed its sale, with California set to follow suit by 2012. Recently a Michelin-starred restaurant, Midsummer House in Cambridge was forced to take it off the menu after activists vandalised the premises. Councils in Stockport, Bolton and Norwich have banned it from council functions, andeven luxury department stores Harvey Nichols and Fortnum & Mason have removed foie gras from their shelves.

How much justification is there for all of this? Is the practice of force feeding really as cruel as its critics make out? Or is it just a fashionable bandwagon on which assorted celebrities and savvy chefs, who know how to stay one step ahead of public opinion, have jumped? Never having seen the process at first hand I took up an invitation from Vincent Labeyrie of London’s Club Gascon, which has always featured a cutting-edge selection of foie gras dishes, to visit his main supplier, Tomasella, in the tiny hamlet of Aignan not far from Auch.

Like most producers in France nowadays, the Tomasellas rear ducks rather than geese, a hybrid variety called mulard which is particularly suited to foie gras production. Ducks are more robust, easier to feed and less prone to disease than geese, explains Bernard Tomasella, and although goose livers have a superior quality and texture, most customers are not prepared to pay a premium for them. There are also more by-products from ducks in the form of magrets (duck breasts) and confit, which the Tomasellas sell from their very chic farm shop.

The ducklings (all male – female duck livers are apparently too heavily veined) arrive at the farm at eight days old. I’m taken to a large airy barn where some 1,000 black and yellow balls of fluff are milling around cheeping, impossibly picturesque. There’s easy access to water, clean straw and the air smells fresh and sweet. So far so good. Fattening up The chicks stay indoors for 15 days or so at 20–22°C, depending on the weather, then go out into open fields until they are around four to fourand- a-half months (in more industrial ‘farms’ this can be as little as 10–11 weeks). During this time they are fed around 170–180g a day of wheat and corn, both GM-free and grown on the Tomasellas’ own farm. This is obviously a richer diet than the birds would feed on in the wild and a far better-quality onethan in more commercial concerns, where the feed is likely to be an aggregated pellet of all kinds of protein including animal by-products. But it was startling to see just how big the ducks were, waddling in ungainly fashion like infirmand overweight pensioners.

The final stage is the controversial gavage, or force feeding, which lasts for 14 days. I had naively expected this to be done by hand but instead the ducks are transferred back to cages where a hopper delivers electronically measured amounts of whole corn down a funnel inserted down their throats.

Why does it have to be whole corn? ‘Because they digest it better and it gives a better quality of foie gras,’ explains Tomasella. ‘If we used ground corn, the process would take longer.’ He strokes the duck’s neck as the feed goes down. The process is over in a few seconds. In industrial-scale operations ducks are fed through a pneumatic pump, at a rate of about 400 ducks an hour rather than the 150 on the Tomasellas’ farm. So, few of us, if we knew what was involved, would probably want to eat commercially produced foie gras, but what’s the problem here? The premises are kept clean and are not overcrowded. The ducks are unstressed, eager even for the food. In such a small-scale operation they know their handler. Well, there are two problems, in my view. First, the sheer volume of food the birds are ingesting, which by the end of the process amounts to 500g twice a day – one kilo of feed. During its short life a foie gras duck’s liver grows to up to 10 times its natural size, with a final weight of 500– 800g. Half of that is fat. Force feeding impairs the ability of the birds’ livers toprocess and excrete food. OK, so they are killed at the end of this period, but if the process, continued they would most likely die anyway.

Secondly it’s hard to see big birds restrained 24 hours a day in such small cages (22x65cm). Tomasella argues that they are better off as they don’t wander off and harm themselves, but if they weren’t so obese that wouldn’t happen. They can’t adopt their normal behaviour of standing up and flapping their wings. According to a 1998 report by the Scientific Committee for Animal Health and Animal Welfare, a high percentage of ducks that are force fed in individual cages are discovered at the abattoir to have lesions of the sternum and bone fractures. I saw no evidence of that, but conditions were certainly cramped. What do you say to people who think it’s cruel, I ask Tomasella. ‘If the ducks suffer they won’t produce top foie gras,’ he replies. ‘We want the birds to feed happily without stress so we get the best result.’ An honest answer, yet it left me feeling profoundly uneasy. True, this is a timehonoured, artisanal process. True, we fatten other animals such as pigs. True, the ducks seem unstressed, positively greedy, but is it right to fatten a creature to the extent that it can’t walk for the sake of a luxury product we don’t need? Foie gras lover though I’ve been, I can no longer accept that it is. After my visit, contrary to all my expectations, I’ve decided I won’t eat it any more.

Written by Fiona Beckett

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