Foie-gras (French for "fat liver") is "the liver of a duck or a goose that has been specially fattened by gavage" (as defined by French law). Gavage is the process of force-feeding birds more food than they would eat in the wild, and much more than they would voluntarily eat. Feed is usually corn boiled with fat, which deposits large amounts of fat in the liver. This process essentially causes a disease of the liver (hepatic steatosis), which would invariably be fatal if the birds were not slaughtered.
The majority of birds used in foie-gras production in France are ducks (97.5 per cent), with geese making up just over 2 per cent (Réussir aviculture, September 2011). In that country alone around 38 million birds are killed for foie-gras each year.
The force-feeding of birds, that are often confined and with no means of escape, is both cruel and damaging to their health. Feed is administered using a funnel fitted with a long tube, forcing it into the bird's oesophagus. Modern systems use a tube fed by a pneumatic or hydraulic pump. Force-feeding can cause violent trauma to the bird's oesophagus, which can lead to death. Around a million birds die during force-feeding in France every year (French industry figures). Premature death rates among force-fed birds is up to 20 times higher than those reared normally. Force-feeding also causes the liver to swell to up to ten times its natural size, impaired liver function, expansion of the abdomen making it difficult for birds to walk, death if the force feeding is continued, and scarring of the oesophagus (Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare, 1998).
Ducks are force-fed twice a day for 12.5 days and geese three times a day for around 17 days. Ducks are typically slaughtered at 100 days and geese at 112 days.
France is the leading foie-gras producing country, with 78.5 per cent of world production. Foie-gras is also produced to a lesser extent in Hungary (8 per cent), Bulgaria (6 per cent), the United States (1.4 per cent), Canada (1 per cent) and China (0.6 per cent) (Xinhua, 2006). In 2011, France produced 19,992 tonnes of foie-gras (production has doubled since 1994). Of that 19,513 tonnes is duck foie-gras (97.5 per cent) and 479 tonnes goose foie-gras (2.25 per cent) (France Agri Mer Donnes Satistiques, 2011). World estimated total production is around 27,000 tonnes.
Typically, birds used for foie-gras will be free-range prior to force-feeding. Geese are not caged in foie-gras production, but 87 per cent of ducks are confined to small wire cages not much bigger than their bodies, where only their heads are free to facilitate force feeding (OFIVAL, 2003). The remainder - and most geese - are enclosed in small enclosures (pens). Only male ducklings are used in French foie-gras production (as they put on weight quicker and their livers are less veinous), almost all females are killed at just a day or two old by either being gassed or thrown alive into industrial macerators (as many as 38 million annually). Both male and female geese are used in foie-gras production.
To add to the pain and misery, in Hungary many Grey Geese bred for foie-gras production are live-plucked once or twice for their feathers before being slaughtered after force-feeding. This despite the practice supposedly banned in the EU. Feathers from ducks and geese killed for foie-gras will also be taken after they are killed. In practice, it is all but impossible to know which down products sold in Britain come from live-plucked birds or are a by-product of the foie-gras industry.
The EU has banned production of foie-gras in countries in the union that do not already have an existing trade, but that does not affect the five countries that do. Gavage is now protected by French law as part of their cultural and gastronomical "heritage" (French rural code). Foie-gras cannot be sold as French unless it is the result of force-feeding. Foie-gras production has been unilaterally banned in several countries, including most of the Austrian provinces, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Israel and since 2012 California (in a move spearheaded by Viva!). General animal protection laws in Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom mean that production is essentially banned there also. In 2012, 8 MEPs called for foie-gras to banned across Europe.
192 tonnes of foie-gras was imported into the UK in 2010 according to French industry figures. The UK consumes more French foie-gras than Germany, twice as much as Italy and four times more than Holland. (Commerce extérieur francais: foie-gras. FranceAgriMer, November 2011). This represents a value of €3.54 million (around £2.85 million) per year. According to import figures this has increased from 127 tonnes in 2006, but latest figures show a small decline (-1.6 per cent between 2010-2011). However, the true figure of animal product imported because of this trade is likely to be much higher, as this statistic does not include duck/goose meat, goose fat or other by-products. As of 2010, this data is no longer collected (as data on foie-gras has now been assimilated into other meat products) (HM Revenue and Customs 2010). This means that the Government has little idea how much of a product that would be illegal to produce in this country is imported into the UK. Most foie-gras in the UK is sold by restaurants, bistros and pubs. Through campaigning by groups such as Viva!, no major supermarket chain currently sells foie-gras in Britain.
An Ethical Alternative?
Some French producers - including many intensive ones - claim to be 'artisan' (which implies skilled methods and pastoral scenes). This term is meaningless, as there is no official definition of 'artisan foie-gras'. All birds raised for foie-gras in France will have been force-fed.
Some producers outside of France are now claiming that they are producing so-called 'ethical' foie-gras. Whilst this does not include force-feeding, geese are tricked into over-eating ahead of a migration they will never make. Compared to the amount of foie-gras produced in France, this type of production is miniscule and hugely expensive.
A Ban in the UK: Achievable?
Despite the production of foie-gras being banned in many European countries (Council of Europe, 1999), the sale of foie-gras is not prohibited. This makes a mockery of existing animal welfare legislation in the UK, by allowing a product to be sold here that would be illegal to produce here. 63 per cent of Brits have said in a 2012 Mori poll that they would like to see foie-gras banned in the UK.
Several councils in the UK, including York, Bath and Bolton, have banned the use of foie-gras in council properties. Whilst they do not have the power to stop establishments selling foie-gras, this is an important move which shows official disapproval.
Sectors of the UK government are sympathetic to a ban. Previous minister for animal welfare at Defra, Ben Bradshaw, has called for a consumer boycott.
WTO (World Trade Organisation) rules are often quoted as the reason why a ban on the importation of foie-gras into the UK would not be possible. However, there are clauses which allow countries to ban imports on the grounds that 'public morals' or 'animal health' are threatened (GATT). The scope of this is currently being considered by the government.
Banning the sale of foie-gras in the UK is also a possibility as we are a sovereign state. However, the Government seemingly will not acknowledge this as an option.
Viva!'s Campiagn for a Foie-gras Free Britain
In 2004, Viva!USA was instrumental in getting a bill passed that banned the force feeding of ducks and geese in the production of foie-gras in California. The bill also bans the sale of the product when made from force-fed birds, both provisions taking effect in the State in the year 2012.
Viva! has printed around half a million leaflets to raise awareness on the cruelty of foie-gras production in the past five years. Viva!'s UK campaign has persuaded supermarket chain Lidl and wholesalers Makro to stop selling foie-gras in all of their stores in the UK. Through targeted media and peaceful demonstrations, campaigning by Viva! and other organisations also saw House of Fraser and Harvey Nichols both drop this cruel product, as well as many independent hotels, restaurants and delicatessens. In 2011, Viva! persuaded Thomson Cruises to remove foie-gras and in 2012 campaigned against its use on BBC cookery shows. Viva! is petitioning the government to challenge trade laws which prohibit a ban on the importation of this product which would be illegal to produce in this country.
Viva!'s campaign has seen national and local media coverage. The group's short film, The World of Gavage, 'spoofs' the false assurances of the French foie-gras industry. Viva! works alongside French consumer group, Stop Gavage.
French rural code L654-27-1: "On entend par foie gras, le foie d'un canard ou d'une oie spécialement engraissé par gavage." ("By "foie gras" one is to understand the liver of a duck or a goose that has been specially fattened by gavage")
Report of the Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare on Welfare Aspects of the Production of Foie-Gras in Ducks and Geese (Adopted 16 December 1998).
OFIVAL (National Interprofessional Office for meat, livestock and poultry Farming) (2003) Contexte, structure et perspectives d'evolution du sector francais du foie gras
French industry website www.portraitquercy.free.fr/canards.htm
Shaw Jonathon R MP (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Marine, Landscape and Rural Affairs) and Minister for the South East) DEFRA) (2007) Parliamentary question and figures from H M Revenue and Customs www.theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2007-11-20a.165252.h
European Recommendations concerning ducks and geese used for the production of foie-gras (1999)
(GATT) General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, Article 20 (b)
FranceAgriMer http://www.franceagrimer.fr/content/download/7135/41640/file/2011-11-17-...(shows exportation figures 2011)
FranceAgriMer http://www.franceagrimer.fr/content/download/17853/140850/file/STA-VIA-LAI-Donnees%20statistiques%202011.pdf (shows production by weight 2011)
Foie gras: French farmers defend 'tradition' after ban in California, The Guardian, 2012 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/aug/05/french-foie-gras-farmers-fight-ban (shows number of birds killed)