Foie gras, the fattened liver of a duck or goose, has become a controversial food, even for meat eaters, because of the way it is produced.
With rare exceptions, foie gras production involves a process called gavage—the French term for the force-feeding of ducks or geese through a tube that is inserted into the birds’ mouths and down the esophagus. The result is the fattening of the birds’ livers that gives foie gras its distinctive flavor.
That flavor is treasured by many diners, but the treatment of the birds has led to bans on the production of foie gras in 17 countries and in California. Many restaurants and some prominent chefs also have sworn off the delicacy, and some major retailers have stopped selling it.
Concerns about foie gras production go beyond the force-feeding of birds to include some of the same issues that surround the treatment of other farm animals raised to be eaten. In many cases, for instance, the birds are kept in cages that allow for very little movement.
However, some foie gras producers, particularly in the U.S., don’t cage their birds. And some people argue that the fattening process needn’t be traumatic for the birds or injure them, if done with care. Under these conditions, some believe, foie gras production is no less ethical than the production of any kind of meat, and is better than the treatment of other animals on many farms.
Adele Douglass, the founder and executive director of Humane Farm Animal Care, makes the case that it is unethical to eat foie gras. Presenting the opposing view is J. Kenji López-Alt, managing culinary director of SeriousEats.com and author of the website’s Food Lab column.
By Adele Douglass
When you are eating foie gras, with rare exceptions you are eating the intentionally diseased liver of a bird that has been inhumanely raised and handled. There is nothing ethical about that, and no way to make it OK.
Humane Farm Animal Care is a nonprofit organization that launched the Certified Humane program in 2003 to improve the lives of farm animals in food production. We rely on the top farm-animal welfare scientists and veterinarians from the U.S., Canada, Brazil and Europe to develop and update our standards of care for various farm animals. Nearly all foie gras production fails to meet our Certified Humane Raised and Handled standard for the ethical treatment of animals, for at least three reasons:
1. All species must have access to a diet that maintains health and promotes a positive state of well-being.
The digestive systems of ducks and geese are designed to handle a certain amount of gorging. But the birds in foie gras production—again, with rare exceptions—are force-fed far more than they would ever consume naturally. That increases the size of their livers to about 10 times their normal size—far beyond the natural 30% to 50% expansion that happens when birds fatten themselves up before long, migratory flights, and far from healthy.
2. Every environment must be designed to meet the welfare needs of each species and allow them to perform natural behaviors.
In most cases these ducks and geese are confined to individual cages and group pens where they can’t perform normal behaviors like standing erect, turning around or flapping their wings. But even cage-free farms don’t bring production up to our standard, because the birds’ feeding still isn’t in any way natural. No foie gras production that involves gavage can be considered ethical.
3. Animals must be protected from pain, injury and disease throughout their entire lives.
The force-feeding of ducks and geese causes a host of afflictions documented by the Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare, which advises the European Commission, as well as the American and Canadian Veterinary Medical Associations. Their findings include inflammation of the esophagus—despite the fact that ducks’ throats are tougher than ours. And ducks’ biology doesn’t protect them from the stress, pain and injury that these scientists found occurred from the capture and restraint of the birds before tube insertion. They also found mortality rates up to 20 times those of the birds’ non-force-fed domestic counterparts, and illness caused by the reduced blood flow to the body cause by liver expansion.
One sure sign of distress in these birds: Studies have shown that after they were force-fed they avoided the people who fed them and the feeding area, unlike ducks that were fed normally.
Seventeen countries ban foie gras production because of the inhumane production methods: Australia, Argentina, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Israel (previously one of the largest producers after France and Hungary), Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Last month, the city of São Paulo prohibited the sale of foie gras in its restaurants.
These bans reflect a realization that gavage is inherently inhumane, and there is no way to make it humane. Many farms meet Certified Humane standards for farm animals destined for our plates, including cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys. No foie gras farm that force-feeds birds could ever do so.
Ms. Douglass is founder and executive director of Humane Farm Animal Care. She can be reached at email@example.com.
By J. Kenji López-Alt
I am not an advocate for meat eating. Every time we eat meat, we are balancing an equation between our pleasure and an animal’s discomfort and death.
What I hope to convince you of is this: If you believe it is OK to raise and kill animals for their flesh, and that any animal we eat should be raised in as humane a manner as is reasonable, you should be OK with foie gras from the best farms (including all foie gras made in the U.S.). It is among the most humanely produced animal products one can buy in the retail food market.
There are farms in other countries that mistreat or individually pen their ducks or geese, and some that show vastly increased mortality rates. These operations cannot, under any standards, be considered humane. They should be shut down. But this is not all farms.
There real question is: Is it possible for foie gras to be humanely produced?
Let’s start with the main objection folks who eat other meats specifically make about foie gras: the force-feeding that occurs during the last couple of weeks of a foie gras duck’s life before slaughter. The trap of anthropomorphism is easy: Pushing a tube down my throat would be torture, so it must be torture for those ducks. But ducks are not humans. Ducks’ throats are made for swallowing rocks, which they use to fill their gizzards. They also eat whole fish, spiny fins and all. The interior of a duck’s throat more closely resembles your fingernail than your flesh.
What about the quantity of food? The tissue at the bottom of a duck’s throat (called the crop) can stretch comfortably to several times its original volume. Ducks naturally gorge themselves when they find a good food supply.
Finally there is breathing. Ducks have two entirely separated pathways for food and for air. They are not suffocated during feeding. They also lack a gag reflex.
Once we accept that when done properly, force-feeding is not inherently inhumane, then we must address the rest of the duck’s life. Farm animals should live in an environment that minimizes stress and allows for their natural behaviors. For a duck that means space to roam, exercise and stretch its wings. There are currently two major foie gras farms operating in the U.S. Both raise their ducks in cage-free barns with features designed to stimulate natural behavior.
These farms have avoided the high levels of injury and mortality that have been documented in factory farms outside the States. Claiming that American farms are inhumane based on data or video collected from overseas farms that do mistreat animals would be like suggesting we shut down a pizzeria in San Francisco because a New York pizzeria had a health-code violation.
There are also economic incentives for gentle handling of livestock in the U.S. Enlarged duck livers are extremely sensitive to bruising and discoloration due to mishandling. In Europe and Canada, blemished livers can get shunted into the thriving market for precooked, tinned foie gras. American foie gras is sold almost exclusively fresh. Any damage caused by rough handling or injury can severely detract from market value.
The slaughter is not pleasant, but no different than for any animal. If you decide to eat meat, you must come to terms with the fact that an animal has been killed for that privilege. At least when you choose to eat American foie gras, you know the duck lived with higher standards of humane treatment than the average chicken, pig or cow.
Mr. López-Alt is managing culinary director of SeriousEats.com and writes the website’s Food Lab column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.