The Duck Stops Here

Arnold Schwarzenegger tells the French to Get Stuffed

Foie Gras has been called the “emblem of French national cuisine”. Produced by methods close to torture and fiercely protected by the government, foie gras production is ruffling the feathers of France’s neighbours. 

Arnold Schwarzenegger has done some pretty disgusting things in his life, “Jingle All The Way” for one and Maria Kennedy Shriver for another, but there are some things even he won’t stomach. Like foie gras.

On 29 September 29, 2004, the Governor signed into law a bill immediately banning the force-feeding of ducks and geese in California and, from 2012, prohibiting the sale of any foodstuff produced by force feeding. Not only is this good news for geese and ducks everywhere but it also stuffs a large number of rich, powerful French farmers whose business has rested for centuries on the torture of poultry.

Foie gras is one of those French delicacies, like oysters or calves brains in black butter, that you would not naturally eat unless told they were a French delicacy. The grossly enlarged liver of a duck or goose, it is in effect a balloon of semi-solid fat in a gelatinous sac. If you like offal that bursts in your mouth, foie gras is for you. 

To French food writer Charles Gerard, and to many of his countrymen, it is "the supreme fruit of gastronomy". Seared and doused with a port-wine reduction, or baked with truffles into a terrine, it is the holy grail of the French restaurant industry: the €20 hors d’oeuvre.

What leaves a nasty taste in the mouth is how these birds are treated on the way to the slaughterhouse. To make their livers larger, ducks are force-fed enormous quantities of mash three times a day using air pumps attached to long metal pipes forced into their gullets. This process of deliberate and painful overfeeding, up to three kilos a day, is called “gavage” (stuffing). The human equivalent would be to eat thirteen kilos of pasta. It continues for up to a month, by which time the birds’ livers swell up to ten times their healthy size. 

One German newspaper reporter visited a foie gras farm in Gascony and saw how large the livers become: “After removing the intestines and the gizzard, [the farm worker] lifts out an enormous, tan-coloured foie gras, the size of a small melon, that fills the entire belly of the small bird”. French farmers defend the distortion of the bird’s internal organs by saying the migratory ducks overeat prior to long flights, swelling their livers naturally. Naturalists at PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) respond that such natural swelling is no more than 50% rather than 1000%.

In another investigation by into French foie gras farming, reporters discovered corpses of ducks that had burst open through overfeeding, many choked to death on their own vomit. Necropsies performed by vets determined others had died from aspiration pneumonia caused when, during the process of force-feeding, food is pushed into the lungs of the birds.

The process is so traumatic, and the confinement and conditions on foie gras farms so debilitating, that the pre-slaughter mortality rate for foie gras production is twenty times the average rate of other duck factory farms.

These figures only apply to drakes since male ducks only are used for foie gras. They produce larger livers and are considered better able to withstand the four-week force-feeding. Female hatchlings are simply killed. found this was usually done by stuffing female chicks in a sack and drowning them. 

Although some traditional producers are promoted as tourist attractions in France, 80% of all ducks are now kept in individual cages, known as épinettes, in factory farms strictly closed to visitors. This change has enabled costs to fall and production levels to increase by more than 100% over the past ten years.

Much of the world, not just Schwarzenegger’s California, rejects this industrialised torture. Animal protection laws in Denmark, Germany, Norway, Poland and Austria specifically prohibit force-feeding. In 1998, the Council of Europe issued a directive stating that no animal should be "provided with food or liquid in a manner ... which may cause unnecessary suffering or injury". The Council and many other European bodies, up to and including the European Commission have since made many more rulings and recommendations, all of which – if they were ever observed – would end the force-feeding of ducks and geese for foie gras. 

France either refuses to implement these directives or else delays them. Not only does it decline even to consider the end of force-feeding but it blocks even the smallest changes to the conditions in which the birds are farmed. In September 2004, the French agriculture ministry infuriated animal welfare organisations by ging the country's 6,000 industrial producers an extra five years – until 2010 – to scrap the cramped individual cages, arguing that a European ruling on the subject was just a recommendation, not a directive. 

"We will implement the recommendation on individual cages, but we need more time and we're glad the government has recognised that," said Marie-Pierre Pé of the powerful industry association Cifog. "Bigger cages will make it harder to grab the birds.” (This is also the reason most of French foie gras production now uses ducks rather than geese since a goose, a larger, bad-tempered bird, was more likely to beak the hand off any Frenchmen unwise enough to shove a pipe down its throat). "Feeding them will take 20-30% longer”, he complains. “That will cost us money."

The French foie gras lobby is fighting back fiercely to protect its money. Recently a committee of eminent scientists from France’s National Veterinary School and the State Agricultural Research Institute produced an 80-page report claiming, to the incredulity of non-French scientists, naturalists and activists, that the birds are not being cruelly treated. 

The French foie gras lobby is not winning sceptical hearts and minds outside Europe. When it asked Nobel Prize Winner and goose expert Konrad Lorenz to read its report promoting the foie gras industry to the European Parliament, he refused, saying he felt "hot with anger" as he read the report. 

"My viewpoint towards the ‘expert opinion’ which further permits forcible fattening of geese ... can be expressed briefly”, he replied in anger, “The ‘expert opinion’ is a disgrace for the whole of Europe.”


What Foie Gras Means To The French (1): “It has an unctuous texture and it fills your palate. Foie gras makes a meal special and it's a symbol of celebration - of Christmas and New Years, marriages and baptisms. In Gascony, where we celebrate around the dinner table, foie gras is always invited." Claude St. Blancard, owner of a foie gras farm that slaughters 3,000 ducks a year.

What Foie Gras Means To The French (2): "They are kept in individual cages for about 10 days. They are force-fed with a tube, twice a day into their throats, about five pounds of corn per day. And that makes their liver swell many, many times its normal size so they can't breathe, they don't sleep anymore and some of them die before the end. That's what foie gras is.” Dominique Hoffpower, French Animal Rights League.

Get Stuffed (1):"Gavage is a veritable form of torture for ducks and geese, which have to absorb huge quantities of food in a matter of seconds." Brigitte Bardot, 1984.

Get Stuffed (2): "They say they are not against foie gras but against gavage and that we should look for alternative methods of production. What methods? There are none. Why don't they also ban butterfly collecting?" Marcel Saint-Cricq, foie gras producer from Landes, south of Bordeaux.


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