Foie Gras, a French word that rolls beautifully off the tongue but not so easily into the stomach, at least for some. Translated from French, Foie Gras literally means “fatty liver,” specifically speaking, the fatty liver of a duck or goose. Though the original notion of creating the delicacy was born in ancient Egypt, contemporarily, France produces the highest amount of this product per year (producing almost 19,000 tonnes and 78% of the worlds supply in 2005).
Both within France and abroad, this delicate slice of buttery liver is not only a prized delicacy but also a controversial culinary concoction. Topping the list of the world’s most disputed foods, Foie Gras has been continually denounced by animal rights activists who argue that its production methodologies are in violation of regulations that protect the humane treatment of animals.
What is it about Foie Gras that separates it so distinctly from other forms of liver preparation and consumption? What makes this product so abhorred by animal lovers and squeamish eaters? The answer is simple: production, production, production. Foie Gras earned its namesake because of the effects of intentional force-feeding (in French this process is called gavage d’oie) on the livers of ducks and geese. Force-feeding techniques are the key contributors in rendering an incredibly oversized and highly fatty liver, ultimately creating the rich, creamy and delicate texture of the consumable product.
Using specially designed machinery, a long feeding tube is inserted into the throat of farm-raised ducks and geese twice a day to fill them to capacity with a strict diet of corn. While producers claim that this force-feeding process is painless to the animals because they lack an esophagus and gag-reflexes the practice is nonetheless concerning, especially regarding the harmful effects of an oversized liver to the animal.
Based on my prejudgements, it was difficult to enter the heart of a land that held foie gras to a different luxurious standard, and went against activists’ requests to cease its production. The duck farmer and producers at J.Barthouil were wary of the issues their product has caused, and are working hard to change its internationally notorious reputation.
In foie gras’ defense, we were told that ducks and geese are migrating animals, and therefore are naturally equipped to store fat for long periods of migration. Therefore, their livers are easily enlarged by the gavage force-feeding process. As far as the animal’s health was concerned, the producer at J.Barthouil assured us that, “If we were to let these animals free, thus stopping the gavage feeding techniques, their livers would return to normal in a matter of days.” This statement seemed hard to believe but was nonetheless accepted by the majority of those who listened.
On the company’s brochure, it is advertised that foie gras is “in fact the healthy liver of an adult duck or goose,” however, seeing the large, fatty, beige mass that they defined as liver, the optimal health of the organ was marginally apparent. Emphasizing the fact that animals are not stressed during this force feeding process, the producer underlined the fact that a stressed animal would produce a low-quality tasting product.
Not surprisingly, the producers at J.Barthouil lamented that while their product is made without the use of chemical additives and organic feeding, the foie gras itself cannot be registered as an organic product. Regardless of details in feed and the free-range living conditions of animals used for this particular company, it cannot receive an organic certification because of complaints made by animal rights activists.
It must be said however that the duck farm we visited in Domezain-Berraute was a small-scale production facility which allowed for ducks to roam freely in a large area of land before their ultimate fate in the gavage room. Unlike industrial manufacturing of foie gras, one could definitely acknowledge a different quality of care and respect that this farm had for its animals. The final consumable product however, was nonetheless created using the same basic methods of force-feeding.
Entering the gavage room on the duck farm in Domezain-Berraute, the pungent and absolutely nauseating smell of the caged animals overwhelmed my senses. As my eyes began to water, the kind farmer boasted that the quality of his foie gras cannot be met by industrial manufacturers. While this statement was confirmed by my classmates, who happily enjoyed the fruits of the farmer’s labor, I could not help but ignore the underlying truth and reality that goes into making foie gras.
The facility was vast, and divided into small cages each housing seven ducks. The room was equipped with large industrial fans that the farmer told us were necessary to cool the animals who were overheated due to their extensively large diet. Looking up close at the animals, I was almost frightened by their size. Never had I seen a duck that large in my entire life. Their backsides almost sagged from their bloated internal organs. I continued to hold my breath.
Leaving the gavage room and liberated into the fresh air of the outdoors, we learned about the traditional conservation methods of foie gras. While it can be whipped into a mousse, packed into a confit, or preserved whole, the most important conservative is duck fat. It can be packaged into cans which extends the conservation of this product to well over a year or jars filled with the duck fat that can be kept for many months.
The final question of consumption remains that the disposal of the consumer, based on his personal preferences, beliefs and priorities. For some, specific issues of animal rights are not considered when eating luxury products such as foie gras, after all humans are carnivorous beings. The concept of consuming a fine delicacy holds high importance for food lovers, especially professional gastronomes therefore making the controversial debate surrounding foie gras seem superfluous.
Others however, dance to a different beat, allowing themselves to enjoy eating meat products while still remaining wary of the places from which these products come. Being that foie gras is a major staple of French cuisine, it would be useless to make a successful campaign to abolish its production altogether, but a knowledge about the facts that go into making a product of this kind is important to understand the origins and sacrifices that go into the foods we eat and the choices we make as informed consumers.
My liver hurts….and something tells me it’s not the fault of my lush-inclined habits.