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Foie gras quite literally means ‘fatty liver’ and in some circles and parts of the world, it is still considered a delicacy. The production of foie gras involves force-feeding ducks and geese to increase the size of their livers. The livers of these poor creatures increase in size up to ten times, while the fat content is more than 50%.
These abnormally large livers can then be sold whole or ground up into a pâté or as another side dish. In 2021, around 200 tonnes of foie gras were imported to the UK last year, where it sold for upwards of £25 per 100g.
The biggest producer in the world is France, followed by Hungary, and Bulgaria.
Foie gras is the engorged liver of ducks and geese which have been force-fed a mixture of grain and fat.
To make foie gras, ducks and geese are force-fed two to three times a day via a feeding tube inserted in their gullet (oesophagus). In a process known as “gavage”, a mixture of boiled grains and fat is then forced down either by hand or mechanically. The amount of food is much greater than the birds would naturally consume and is increased over a period of time.
Using new mechanical systems, this feeding process can be completed in just two to three seconds and will continue for 12 to 15 days for ducks and 15 to 21 days for geese before they are slaughtered.
The production of foie gras is so cruel and horrifying that it has been banned in 16 countries. To produce foie gras, workers insert pipes down the throats of male ducks twice each day, pumping up to one kilogram of grain and fat into their stomachs, or geese three times a day, up to two kilograms daily, in a process known as “gavage”.
Foie gras is only made from the livers of male ducks, making the female ducklings of little value to the industry.
Under the Welfare of Farmed Animals Regulations, British farmers have been banned from producing foie gras since 2007. However, foie gras can still be imported and is readily available in supermarkets and served in many restaurants.
A YouGov survey of 1,700 people commissioned by animal rights charity, Animal Equality showed that 86 per cent of respondents expressed an opinion opposing the force-feeding of animals, and 81 per cent supported a ban on foie gras imports.
In 2022, the Government’s Animals Abroad Bill was expected to include provisions to ban foie gras imports. This bill would also have cracked down on trophy hunting and fur trading. Unfortunately, this part of the bill was dropped in February when it met opposition from members of the government including the Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who reportedly opposed the ban on the grounds that it was an infringement on personal choice.
The law regarding the production of foie gras in the USA varies from state to state. In California, no products can be made by force-feeding birds with the intent to enlarge their livers from being produced or sold in the state. This law has been in effect since 2012, despite a number of legal challenges attempting to overturn it. In 2019, New York City prohibited the sale of foie gras made from force-fed birds, which took effect in 2022.
Foie gras was being made as far back as 4,000 years ago in Egypt. After they hunted and eventually domesticated geese, they found that the birds developed large livers when they ingested the large amounts of food, which their bodies demanded for the rigours of their annual migrations.
They developed a technique known as “gavage”, which they used to produce birds with a fattier, larger liver. This was initially performed by hand, before being adopted by the Greeks and later the Romans, who made foie gras itself into a delicacy and introduced it throughout the Mediterranean and the rest of the empire.
The feeding practices are inherently cruel and cause significant distress, injury and pain to the birds. Force-feeding leads to steatosis of the liver whereby fat accumulates in the liver to such an extent that the organ’s function and structure are severely compromised.
In addition, the birds are often kept in either cages or small group pens where they cannot exhibit normal behaviours and for many the cages are so small they cannot turn around, stretch their wings or stand erect. As with many cage systems the slatted or mesh flooring can cause foot injuries and it is likely the birds are kept in near darkness for the majority of the time.
Foie Gras isn’t specifically banned in California, rather the “force-feeding of a bird for the purpose of enlarging its liver beyond normal size” is. So what if foie gras were to be produced without force-feeding?
“Force-feeding is not an ‘ingredient’ of foie gras, since foie gras can be produced without resorting to such cruel methods,” says Humane Society campaigner Paul Shapiro. In fact, there are producers who claim to produce a more ethical and natural foie gras in which the birds are not force-fed, but obviously, we need to consider the rest of the conditions they are farmed in.
The most important thing is to boycott the product but the fact that you’re reading this article probably means you do that already. You can also add your name to Chris Packham’s petition to let the government know how you feel.
If you do see foie gras for sale in a supermarket, you can let them know that you don’t approve by writing to the head office, expressing your concerns and asking them not to stock it anymore.
The production of foie gras is obviously not permitted under the RSPCA's welfare standards. There are, however, higher welfare standards for the farming of ducks. To let your supermarket know that you would be interested in buying RSPCA Assured duck, you can use our lobby your supermarket tool.