Posted: 8 January 2013. Updated: 27 July 2016
Pate de foie gras is regarded as a delicacy, and is sold in restaurants, hotels, delicatessen and luxury shops. The world’s largest producer is France. This product of shocking cruelty is imported and sold throughout the UK, even though it would be illegal to produce it.
The following is a witness account of the force-feeding of ducks in rural France:
The ducks were subdued, sitting in their pen, some had apparently vomited over the backs of others. As the farmer climbed into the pen they attempted to hide, huddling into a corner, pushing their beaks into the bales of straw forming the back of the pen; but there was to be no escape.
A small boy carried in a bucket of steaming maize (corn). He picked up a funnel with a tube attached, of about 20cm in length. He filled the funnel with maize. On the top of the mouth of the funnel was a handle, attached to a grinder.
The farmer grabbed one of the cowering birds, firmly grasping it by each wing, pinning its body between his ankles. Some of the birds struggled, helplessly kicking their small webbed feet against the farmer’s leg. With the bird pinned in place, the farmer prized open the mouth, holding the lower beak and tongue between his thumb and forefinger. With the beak held open, he pushed the tube down the animal’s throat. He clamped one hand around the beak and tube to hold them in place, and with the other, slowly turned the handle at the top of the funnel, the grinder helping to push the maize down the tube. Occasionally, he rubbed and squeezed the bird’s throat to help force the food down. In less than a minute, the huge dose of maize had been forced down the now motionless bird’s throat. Finally, the bird was released and another caught, for its turn.
Helpless, the birds’ eyes stare wildly as they go through this grotesque ritual. Pumped full of maize, they waddle away afterwards, their eyes no longer frightened and staring, but dull and unresponsive.
The birds waiting to be ‘fed’ huddle and hide their faces. How different this is to the normal feeding of farmyard ducks and geese, where they rush forward, clamouring around the food.
This is the start of the production line for the luxury foodstuff, pâté de foie gras. Over 35 million ducks and geese in France are force fed to produce the pate, The majority is produced by factory-farming methods, while some is produced by the traditional method described above.
Eighty percent of the ducks used for foie gras production are kept singly, in tiny cages on intensive farms. These production methods are increasing the availability of foie gras and making it more affordable.
France now produces more than 80% of the worlds foie gras. Foie gras production has increased throughout the world. Countries producing foie gras include “most of the Eastern European countries”, Hungary, Belgium, Spain, Bulgaria and other parts of the world such as China and the USA.
Pâté de foie gras is said to have been created in Strasbourg in the 18th Century by a Norman chef Jean-Joseph Close, although the brutal production technique dates back to the ancient Egyptians.
It is regarded as a great delicacy by gourmets and has traditionally been a luxury food. Goose foie gras is described as having "a sweet and smooth taste, whereas duck foie gras is stronger, with a more rustic taste. ...The goose foie gras....is the gourmet’s foie gras." The bird’s liver is minced and cooked with wine aspic and/or truffles/other products and can be fully or semi-preserved.
The common technique is to restrain the bird by hand or machine with its neck extended, a tube is pushed down the throat, and the food forced down the throat either manually or mechanically. The throat is rubbed to help push the food into the stomach. Sometimes an elastic band will be put around the bird’s neck to prevent the animal retching the food up. The manual method takes up to a minute per bird, but on intensive farms a pneumatic pump may be used, taking just a couple of seconds to force down the food. On intensive farms, the birds may be kept in individual cages so small that they cannot stretch their wings or even stand erect. The birds can do nothing, but sit and wait to be force-fed.
For two to three weeks, the birds are force-fed two or three times a day (depending upon the species), with lightly cooked maize, fat (pork/goose/duck), salt, and other additives. During this two to three week period before slaughter, the quantity of food being crammed is steadily increased.
By the time of slaughter, the birds are being force fed up to a staggering 6lbs of food each day. As a result of the combination of vast quantities of food and nutritional deficiency, the sick liver succumbs to further disease, such as fibrosis, haemorrhages and jaundice. The swollen liver forces the abdomen to expand, making it difficult for the birds to walk. In fact, a European veterinary committee has pointed out that the animals are so sick that they would die anyway, if they were not slaughtered.
Yet, one manufacturer claims that their products are "A Friend for your Health.....people in the south of France suffer from less heart disease than other populations.....fats derived from ducks and geese are less saturated...”
The birds can also be injured during the force-feeding process. They may be accidentally suffocated if food is forced into the trachea, and bruising or puncturing of the throat and neck can occur. Between 2% and 4% of force-fed birds die before slaughter, as opposed to a mortality of 0.2% in conventionally fed ducks; a 10 to 20-fold increase. Post-mortems of force-fed birds show how the swollen liver presses on the heart and lungs making exertion and breathing difficult, and causing heart disorders. The normal liver of a duck or goose weighs around 120 grammes and is reddish in colour. The force-fed bird’s liver appears yellow, shiny and greasy and can weigh up to 1300 grammes – more than 10 times the normal amount. What would possess anyone to want to eat this?
Manufacturer, Rougié, finds this all quite natural, saying of this revolting process,"contrary to the generally accepted idea force-feeding is a natural action: migratory birds such as geese or ducks have a physiological aptitude for cramming. During the month which precedes their migratory trip, they eat as much as they can, so that they get enough reserves to endure the trip.”
Despite this, there are as yet no European proposals to ban the production of this cruel delicacy and high street outlets and restaurants in the UK continue to fuel the misery. In 2010 192 tonnes of foie gras were imported to the UK from France alone.
Questions about foie grás production have been raised in the European Parliament, with David Martin MEP asking the Commission to “clarify the ban on providing food in a manner that compromises the health and welfare of ducks and geese raised for foie gras, by explicitly prohibiting force-feeding”. The Commission stated that a Recommendation by the Council of Europe puts foie grás producing countries under obligation to encourage research on the welfare aspects of the practice and alternatives to gavage and that there is no plan to introduce a legislative proposal on this.
When questioned about France and Hungary’s infringements of the ban on keeping ducks in individual cages the Commission’s reply is disappointingly weak, they state that they “will continue to monitor the situation in France and Hungary with a view to obtaining in these countries compliance with the ban on individual cages for ducks”.
Force-feeding is however being banned in an increasing number of countries. Poland, Austria, Denmark, Germany, Czech Republic, Finland, Luxembourg and Norway now have ban the force feeding of animals. Existing animal protection legislation in the UK is interpreted as a ban on force-feeding; furthermore, we understand that the UK government has indicated that if attempts were made to set up production here, a specific ban would be introduced. It has been reported that general animal protection legislation in Switzerland and a court decision in Israel, are also interpreted as a prohibition on force-feeding. It is therefore important to extend this kind of legislation across Europe, and to the United States and other countries.