Is ‘Humane’ Foie Gras a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

How would you feel about foie gras if you knew force-feeding ducks and geese no longer had to be part of the production process?

Foie gras is a delicacy food made from the liver of a goose or duck that has been fattened by overfeeding. Typically producers make foie gras by force-feeding these birds using a feeding tube. At about nine weeks old, the birds begin a brutal 22-day regimen. According to The Washington Post:

[T]hey are fed six times a day. A spiral nozzle or straight rubber hose is pushed five inches down their throats and more food than they want is gunned into their stomachs. If the mushy corn sticks in the birds’ pipes a stick is sometimes used to force it down.

This cruel process is called “gavage.” It causes the liver to grow up to 10 times its normal size. Force-feeding any animal is horrifying and cruel. More than anything else, it’s this aspect of foie gras that causes such intense controversy and angst. In fact, in 20 countries – including Israel, Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom — gavage is now illegal. In India, it’s illegal to import foie gras at all.

If you’re not familiar with the standard process for making foie gras, watch this video:

Force-feeding ducks and geese is traumatic in so many ways. Birds raised for foie gras have a 20 percent higher mortality rate than normal birds, according to an investigation by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Foie gras bird carcasses examined by veterinarians suffered from fractured wings and significant tissue damage in their throats.

How can this treatment of innocent birds be deemed acceptable and legal? Sadly, in most places it still is. In France, the culinary home of foie gras, producers made an incredible 19,300 tons of foie gras in 2014 alone. A total of 44 million ducks and geese die annually to make French foie gras. That’s a lot of cruelty imposed on a staggering number of birds — all to satisfy a momentary craving for a snooty luxury appetizer.

Two Spanish farmers, Eduardo Sousa and Diego Labourdette, say it doesn’t have to be this way. They believe they’ve cracked the code when it comes to making “ethical and sustainable” foie gras. They’ve found a way to avoid any force-feeding at all.

Sousa and Labourdette run a 1,200-acre goose farm near Pallares, Spain. The landscape there is rich with olives, figs and acorns. Wild geese migrating through this region eagerly stop there for awhile each year. They happily gorge themselves on these foods to sustain them for their long flight.

“The natural cycle for the wild goose of Europe is to spend the summer in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, northern Germany or parts of Russia and Ukraine. Then they migrate south to Africa each autumn,” Labourdette told NPR. “They stop here in Spain on their way, to eat and gain energy for the long flight. But lots of them never leave because they find such a good habitat here.”

Every October, just after the eating frenzy comes to a close, workers at “Sousa & Labourdette” capture and kill 1,600 or so of these homesteading geese. They do so by paralyzing them with bright light, which has a hypnotizing effect. They then quickly dispatch them using a knife.

“It happens very quickly, and they don’t suffer,” Sousa told NPR.

They use their livers to make their special brand of foie gras. Because it’s not a year-round harvest, the company makes a pricey limited run of foie gras once a year.

A jar of “Sousa & Labourdette” foie gras goes for about $220. The company sells the rest of the geese carcasses to other who harvest the feathers for down and cure the meat for consumption. Little is wasted. Why don’t more producers move to this methodology? It’s not easy and right now, not making much money.

“Our method is very complicated and not profitable, for the moment,” Sousa told Munchies. “It demands a lot of patience. But we love our work, and we hope to make a living off it in the near future.”

Sousa says he opposes force-feeding and, regarding the attempt to ban of the sale of foie gras in places like California, agrees “with anything that favors the animals’ welfare.”

“Ethical” foie gras — is it a good thing or a bad thing? I find myself torn on this question. As a vegan, it breaks my heart to see any goose or duck killed for food. Calling foie gras “ethical” or “humane” under any circumstances makes my guts churn. I’d rather people leave the birds to live their lives in peace, wild and free.

As a pragmatist, though, I know there’s a demand out there for foie gras. There will always be people stepping in to provide that product as long as foodies want it. If there’s an upside here, it’s that the geese flocking to Sousa and Labourdette’s farm get to live normal, happily gluttonous lives right up to the end. No one’s shoving a tube down their throats or keeping them in cages in a big warehouse.

Make no mistake — I hate foie gras with a seething passion. I despise the idea of consuming anything that comes from an animal. That said, I also welcome any development that reduces animal suffering.

How do you feel, Care2 readers? Leave us a comment and tell us.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

281 comments

Judy Pelton
Judy Pelton1 years ago

one more thing I forgot before - the part of the article where Sousa says the geese are "dispatched" (what? you can't say killed??!!) and it's done "...very quickly and they don't suffer." Well how the hell do you know that, pray tell? did you ask them? did they tell you? do you speak 'geese' I wonder? if so were they able to tell you from beyond death 'oh hi! I didn't suffer at all when you dispatched me, dear sir. see ya in the afterlife. bye now!' puleeeeze -get real!

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Judy Pelton
Judy Pelton1 years ago

there is no "humane" foie gras - no matter how it's made you're still killing and eating an animal. that's all there is to that. is this process less horrible than the "traditional" way of making this disgusting "delicacy" for the well-to-do? yes. does it matter in the end? no. (I'm a vegan.)

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federico bortoletto
federico b2 years ago

Petizione firmata.

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Diane Pease
Diane P2 years ago

If it involves killing an animal, then it's NOT HUMANE!!

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Jennifer H.
Jennifer H2 years ago

Still gross. I find it irritating that they use the word "dispatch" to murder an animal.

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Adele E Zimmermann

Can't the uber rich live without foie gras? Do their very lives depend on it? Why can't they just eat pate? While I applaud the effort to produce it more humanely, I don'approve of the ambush and slaughter of wild geese. How many years would it take before their species would be threatened?

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cindy a.
cindy a.2 years ago

They need to ban/stop this barbaric act on these animals. I don't understand how anyone can enjoy something like this knowing that an animal had to practically die just so they could eat it. All animal cruelty needs to be stopped immediately in all countries.

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Teresa Antela
Teresa A2 years ago

noted

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Jen S.
Jen S2 years ago

I am an unapologetic francophile. I taught at a French university for four years and have always been fond of the cuisine, even foie gras. Until we were in the Dordogne and were invited to a goose farm. I haven' t touched foie gras since... and that was decades ago. While not forcefeeding is certainly better than the alternative, I don't believe it should be characterized as humane, even if the goose leads a natural life before slaughtered. Though not a vegetarian, I don't consume meat in the enormous quantities it is now typically served. And there are meats I will not consume, including veal, because of how it is raised. I am acutely aware of the moral contradiction, and there are many more people who eat foie gras as happily as I once did.

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Janet B.
Janet B2 years ago

Thanks

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