Foie Gras Fact and Fiction

A few facts about foie:  The Egyptians discovered that geese caught and eaten just before migration had fatter livers. This is due to  their need to store energy for their long flights.

Bulking up before migration allows geese and ducks to store enough fat in the form of lipids in their livers and under their skin to power their flight.  These energy sources are exhausted when they reach their goal. In other words, unlike us, geese evolved to have fatty livers.

MIgratory Water Fowl livers are in the center of their visceral cavities, not to one side as are yours and mine.  The central liver makes it possible for the bird to fly in a straight line. A lopsided bird would fly in circles.

The visceral cavity has evolved to stretch to accommodate the liver, thus to permit it to store as much energy as possible for the journey. The duck also stores fat under the skin (subcutaneous fat), unlike cattle or sheep, which store muscle fat, which is seen in the much desired marbling of good steaks. When we overeat, we bloat and are miserable. Ducks do not and are not.  Waterfowl are built to expand. They have the equivalent of natural elastic waistbands. This is necessary for survival. The more fat the animal puts by, the more likely it will be to arrive at the end of its journey alive.By the time migratory geese and ducks reach their destinations, they have used up all of the fat and energy they stored during their gorging period.

The difference between the feeding of geese and ducks in captivity and migratory birds is that farm raised birds are given more food via a process called gavage in which a tube is inserted in the animal’s gullet. Notice that this is not the same as “throat” (geese don’t have throats as we do). Tube feeding is the same method used to feed sick birds.It is not like a feeding or breathing tube for a human being.

Duck breathing and ingestion diagram from No reservations

Ducks and geese breathe through their tongues, not their throats, as  you can see in the image from Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” above.. Their cartilaginous windpipes and their esophagi, which lead to their stomachs, are separate passages. During the gavage the birds’ tongues are outside of their beaks,and they continue to breathe normally.

Ducks don’t swallow and they don’t gag. When water fowl forage in nature they use their tongues to force whatever fish, frogs or greens they can find down their highly flexible gullets, as they don’t have our wave like swallowing motions. Our own unpleasant gag and choking reflexes have evolved to prevent us from strangling on inhaled food. Since this is not a problem for birds, they do not experience the discomfort.

Their gullets are flexible and can accommodate large amounts of food.  The feeding tubes are much smaller than the maximum diameter which could be used. They are not forced down the gullet – which would be quite a feat, but inserted. In Europe a few of the old farms still feed them by hand and massage larger amounts of food down the animals’ necks. The tubes permit the feeders to provide a narrower stream of feed, although the geese do not seem to mind the “Nudeln”, as it is called in parts of Alsace.

Fowl raised for foie are first raised as freerange animals then are loosely penned during a short gavage period – usually between two and three weeks – so they store the energy. The duck fattens and the liver expands as it takes on lipids. Ducks raised for foie, unlike chickens, are really free range. The term “freerange” is often misleading in chickens, which ore frequently only given a door through which to access an outside pen in the house in which they were raised. According to those who have studied the process, they are timid animals and rarely use it. Of all of the major meat and poultry animals with the exception of a very few exemplary farmers like Jonathan White’s Bobolink pigs, foie geese enjoy the most humane treatment.

Gavage works with geese, however, because as water fowl their anatomy. unlike that of cattle and poultry, adapted to the process of taking on large amounts of fat for short periods of time.

(Considering the difference of quality of life between chickens and ducks, ask  yourself why the animal activists opposed to foie gras did not first take on the egregious situations reported in many of the country’s poultry batteries.)


What about stress? Stress in farmed animals is a certain recipe for poor product.  As foie gras is very expensive not only to produce but to purchase, and consumers who pay what it costs demand good quality, foie gras producers are very concerned about keeping their animals as stress free as possible.

Stress investigations show that the first day of gavage does stress the geese, as it is a new process, but they quickly become accustomed to the process and take it pretty much in their stride. In parts of France where it was done by hand for many years (sometimes called nudling) the geese pressed up against the feeder when she entered the stall. I have seen the process and saw neither terrified animals nor those greedy for the tube. They seemed fairly nonchalant about the entire process. They don’t press into one corner of the cage or run from the feeder, nor do they try to get away when they are picked up. I

Producers avoid other stress factors in foie ducks..  The greatest cause of stress in farm animals is transport. Once the eggs are hatched, the farmers do not let them travel. As one foie producer noted, they do not want stressed animals, because the return on their investment of time and money would be reduced. The animals need to be well treated for optimal final product. Any chef or butcher, by the way, will tell you the same is true of any animal served as food. Better treatment during the animal’s life and at the end of it results in more tender and better tasting meat. Good foie farmers do not, therefor, transport their animals to other locations to be finished as do for instance cattle ranchers.

Foie producers do not, as some farmers do, pluck their birds alive, which causes not only stress but pain. Here too, the motivation is not to impact the quality of their product through greed. It must be said, however, that any foie opponent  sleeping under a  bargain down comforter or wearing a budget down jacket needs to see the irony in the situation.

Gavage neither causes the birds pain nor stresses them, They have evolved to be able to  fatten up by ingesting enormous amounts of anything they can shovel into their gullets from water plants to fat frogs. They do not swallow but gorge, the food being forced down the gullet by their powerful tongues. A blatant fallacy consciously propagated by the foie opponents is the comparison of water fowl to human anatomy and that of our pet mammals. Geese and ducks aren’t humans, nor are they kittens. We don’t breathe through our tongues, Cats cough up hair balls. Geese don’t cough up feathers, or for that matter, the spines of the fish they and adapted swallow whole. They are specifically evolved water birds with anatomies different than those we suppose from our own experiences and those we observe in our pets. For an entertaining video take a look at Anthony Bourdain’s treatment of the subject on YouTube..

Feeders in foie production are paid a bonus for maintaining the quality of their birds.  Producers provide incentives for keeping the quality of their birds’ pens and handling as humane as possible.

Foie production does end in the slaughter of the animal, but unlike shark fin harvesting, the process is not capricious.  Both meat and feathers are sold. If you eat duck breast, it is probable that the breast comes from a duck raised for foie.  Duck and goose farmers do not waste their animals.

The AVMA has ascertained that the ducks fed by gavage for about two weeks are considerably fatter than ducks in nature, which is of course an unhealthy state. As the ducks are harvested after the end of that time, however, the question of the extra weight is of no consequence. Most meat and fowl products sold in the United States are likewise products of accelerated feeding prior to slaughter: Turkeys, pigs, cattle and chickens are all fed more than they would eat in nature in order to increase meat quality and yield. Many, unlike the geese and ducks used for foie production, are also given antibiotics and other fodder additives intended to impact the final  product. The ducks used in gavage are penned during the final two weeks, although not nearly as tightly as chicken, most pork or beef. Allowing an animal to fatten before slaughter is not generally classified as mistreatment or torture.

Among the incendiary claims made about foie production is that gavage causes disease. This, too, has been negated by the experts who audited farms both in California and on the East Coast with no findings of damage to the animals or maltreatment. Nor is there any evidence of ducks “exploding” or dying of ruptured stomachs. The animals are valuable – by the time they reach gavage the farmer has invested a fair amount of money in them, and they are handled well.

Avian scientists and members of the American Veterinary Society like Dr Lawrence Bartolf, Dr Daniel Guimene , Director of research at the National Institute for Agronomic Research,  and avian veterinarian Jeanne Smith have  testified that the practice of foie production is not inhumane, does not cause disease and does not distress birds. The AVMA has declined to state that the process causes pain or distress,

Foie gras is a delicacy, not a staple. As a food luxury it is consumed in small, expensive portions rather than steak sized slabs. The production is therefor both of the artisan and small farm nature supported by today’s ethical food policies. There are only a few foie farms in North America, each one directly husbanded by a family or individual owner. The product is sustainable and by nature organic, neither using harmful chemicals nor producing any environmental waste. It is as such a business of high integrity, supported by Slow Food and other organizations concerned with culturally and environmentally appropriate products.

For more information visit the Artisan Farmers’ web site.

For a more extensive information on the science, practices and effects of foie production, see the paper by Dr Daniel Guimene and G. Guy.

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