Ethical Foie Gras: Reality or Just Clever Marketing?
No food has become as controversial in recent years as foie gras. The rich, buttery, decadent foodstuff, made from either duck or goose liver, is one of the most expensive luxury items in the culinary world. Unfortunately, however, it’s also one of the cruellest, and many have called for a worldwide ban on foie gras production and consumption.
History and Methods
There is evidence that foie gras began in Ancient Egypt since a Bas relief appears to depict the feeding process by which foie gras is made. The Ancient Egyptians had a close relationship with their geese and clearly demonstrated the techniques and know-how to make foie gras, most likely after encountering it naturally in their geese before developing the force-feeding techniques. Whether they are the true originators of the foodstuff or simply the first references we have to it will never be known for certain.
Regardless, foie gras quickly spread to Europe via the Roman Empire and after its subsequent fall, and was likely re-introduced by Jewish peoples from the former Roman province of Judea as they settled across the Mediterranean and beyond. Other theories of foie gras’ re-emergence in Europe suggest Gallic farmers continued the practice after the fall of the Roman Empire. Both theories have merit, and there’s a high chance foie gras persisted in Europe due to a combination of the two, perhaps being reintroduced by Jewish peoples, and preserved by Gallic farmers.
Whatever the truth, Europe retained its love of foie gras and today plays host to the world’s largest producer — France. Foie gras is a beloved French delicacy and they remain its most ardent defenders, producing more than 70% of the world’s foie gras. The process by which the birds are force-fed also bears a French name, ‘gavage’, and though they certainly weren’t its inventors, they are its most devout practitioners, with the practice becoming enshrined in French law.
To call the process of gavage cruel doesn’t really do the practice justice. The process varies a little depending on country and region, but generally, geese and ducks are force-fed over the course of around 100 days, before being slaughtered for their livers — the foie gras. At the end of this point, their liver will have increased between 6 and 10 times its normal size, with the process taking advantage of these birds’ abilities to fatten up before migration in the winter.
The vast majority of farms that make foie gras are factory farms, meaning the birds are caged the majority of the time, while a small percentage are ‘free-range’, essentially allowing the birds to roam, but still employing the gavage technique, which has been shown to damage the oesophagus of these birds. Criticisms of this process and the cruelty and brutality involved have led many to call for an all-out ban on the product, though this has been met with stiff resistance from the industry itself.
Truly ‘ethical foie gras’ makes up a tiny fraction of the industry, and despite attempts to eradicate it, it’s beginning to gain worldwide attention as climate change, sustainability, and animal rights continue to be at the forefront of politics. Leading this change is an unlikely champion — a small farm in Extremadura, Spain called Paterià du Sousa.
Paterià du Sousa
Since 1812, Paterià du Sousa has been producing what they call ‘natural foie gras’. While the practice was started over two hundred years ago by his great-grandfather, the family patriarch Eduardo Sousa is the man responsible for bringing ethical foie gras to the world.
From a modern agricultural mindset, his methods may seem like madness, but they produce not only some of the world’s most delicious foie gras but also its most ethical. Essentially, his geese are allowed to roam the 30-acre farm and eat wild figs and olives, along with numerous plants and herbs. During the fall months, the geese will follow their natural instinct and gorge themselves in preparation for migration in winter. This is a natural practice for geese and Eduardo Sousa takes advantage of this, slaughtering them when they are at their most fattened, without ever employing the technique of gavage.
He has faced numerous challenges from both chefs and the foie gras industry over the years. Typically, foie gras’ quality is judged by its bright yellow colour, but natural foie gras lacks this quality because the birds, unlike their factory-farmed counterparts, aren’t fed almost exclusively on corn. To counter this, Eduardo Sousa researched his local environment and eventually came across the Lupin bush, a native plant to the region, noted for its bright yellow colour. His geese love the plant and the seeds turned their foie gras the traditional yellow, once again, without the need for gavage.
The true industry upset came in 2006 when Paterià du Sousa won the coveted Coup de Coeur for his foie gras at the Salon International d’Alimentation, a prestigious French food competition recognising excellence. Almost immediately, his French competitors accused him of cheating, but no evidence ever surfaced to back up these allegations. The industry then tried to have him disqualified. Under French law, the gavage technique must be used for the product to be legally called foie gras. This too was thrown out, however, since Paterià du Sousa is not a French farm, and only France requires this stipulation.
As a result, Paterià du Sousa was awarded the first ethical foie gras license and gained worldwide fame.
An Industry In Flux
The issue many raise with Paterià du Sousa’s foie gras, unsurprisingly, comes down to economics. Due to the time restrictions (his foie gras is only harvested in the winter) and the limitations of the natural process, Paterià du Sousa’s foie gras is some of the most expensive in the world, selling for about three times as much as gavage foie gras. A single jar can cost upwards of £160 ($213). This is due simply to the quantity available. A liver from one of Paterià du Sousa’s geese will weigh no more than 450g, whereas a force-fed goose’s liver can weight up to 1kg.
Eduardo Sousa acknowledges this, though not in the way one might expect. According to him, he could make far more profit not raising the geese at all. The figs and olives from his land that the geese don’t eat make up the vast amount of his income. If all he was concerned about was money, he would not raise the geese at all. He raises the geese to be a part of a natural process, not for profit, which leads to the question — can his methods be adapted on a global scale in a profit-based industry?
The Global Scale
When talking about ethical foie gras, it’s difficult to ignore its parallels with industrial agriculture. Like fields upon fields of monocultures, force-fed foie gras is about extraction at any cost. Maximum output, minimum input. These are the tenants of farming today. Our obsession with extraction and plenty, and our need to over-consume has led us to abuse the land at our disposal and caused us to inflict brutal, inhumane conditions on the animals we keep for food.
Foie gras can be ethical, but the foie gras industry cannot, at least not without some massive overhauls. Many will say that the taste is worth the suffering, or that prices would go up if foie gras was only available seasonally and in reduced quantities.
Economics shouldn’t hold sway over nature, however. If the price of foie gras, an already expensive luxury item, goes up, so be it. It will simply render it more prestigious and exclusive, a boon for a product like foie gras.
As for the suffering, for those of us that eat meat (and I do), it’s our responsibility as the inheritors of the Earth to minimise suffering. Not just for the animal’s sakes, but for our own. Factory farming, not just in the foie gras industry, but in the agricultural sector as a whole, causes a staggering amount of damage to the climate each year. By minimising even one sector of it, we can make a big difference.
Eating ethical foie gras won’t save the planet, but the movement it represents — a return to a natural and localised form of agriculture — could very well do so. Modern farming, and society as a whole, could learn a great deal from Eduardo Sousa. Thinking purely in terms of profit brings only exploitation and short-term rewards but living in harmony with our planet is ultimately far more rewarding and will save us a great deal of suffering of our own in the near future. Despite how we think of ourselves, we are not the masters of nature, merely a part of it.
The ethical question regarding our treatment of animals extends far beyond foie gras. An often-overlooked victim of modern farming is the honeybee, which has led the majority of vegans to abstain from eating honey, but some may have found an ethical loophole.