Torture in a tin: Viva! foie-gras fact sheet
Updated December 2017
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.
It is a common misconception that it is predominantly geese killed for foie-gras production in France. However, the majority of birds used to produce foie-gras in France are actually ducks (98.3 per cent), with geese making up around 1.7 per cent. In that country alone over 44 million birds are killed for foie-gras each year (France Agri Mer Donnes Satistiques, 2015).
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.
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 (or increasingly groups cages), 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 43 million annually). Both male and female geese are used in foie-gras production.
Despite an EU wide ban on individual cages (which came into force in January 2011) France has flouted this ruling since. The French government has pledged to pass a European directive into law and ban individual cages at the end of 2015. It remains to be seen if this actually happens. Individual cages will be replaced by group cages, where birds are pinned to the floor by a mechanical arm to be force-fed. This group housing is still a far cry from a natural environment and could aggravate aggression and exacerbate – or cause – injury to birds. Footage obtained by Viva!/L214 shows such a system with birds with bloody injuries trampled upon by other ducks.
With around 72 per cent of world production, France is the leading foie-gras producing country (after declining slightly in 2013 production in that country rose 1.4 per cent in 2014). This growth can partly be attributed to increasing export markets in countries such as Hong Kong, Vietnam and South Korea. Foie-gras is also produced to a lesser extent in Hungary, Bulgaria, the United States, Canada and China (Xinhua, 2006). In 2014, France produced 19,300 tonnes of foie-gras (production has roughly doubled since 1994). World estimated total production is around 26,600 tonnes.
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 and Israel. 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.
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 claim 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.
Britain’s growing taste for foie-gras
According to French industry figures, 184.5 tonnes of foie-gras was imported into the UK in 2014. The UK consumes more French foie-gras than Germany, more than twice as much as Italy and nearly five times more than Holland. This represents a value of €3.65 million (around £2.5 million) per year. According to import figures this has increased from 127 tonnes in 2006. 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 Viva!, no major supermarket chain currently sells foie-gras in Britain.
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 imports 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. However, given that the trade is growing between Britain and France Viva! does not believe that – whilst important – a consumer boycott is enough and is calling for an outright ban on imports.
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). In 2014, the WTO appeals panel upheld the European Union's ban on imports of seal furs, meat, blubber and other products. They agreed that, in this instance, trade restrictions were legal because it violated "public morals". In an important distinction they pointed out that the move was non-protectionist because the EU does not have an industry in seal products. Viva! believes that this opens up the possibility of pursuing a ban on imports of foie-gras into Britain under similar criteria, as Britain does not have an industry to protect and the move could not be challenged as a protectionist measure under WTO rules.
Brexit also opens up a possibility for action - albeit not a certainty. At time of writing it is unknown whether the UK will remain part of the single market. If we do then existing trade rules within the EU may present an issue (although they have not been tested in a court of law). Whilst the UK Government could ban foie-gras importation tomorrow if they wanted (we already have the power to do just that), the risk of being successfully sued is greater if we continue being bound by single market rules. Even outside of the single market the question remains whether politicians would want to jeopardise fresh deals by ending an existing trade? However, the numbers are relatively small compared to other trade figures. But, ultimately, it is vitally important for people to constantly remind the Government that they have a moral obligation to ban foie-gras imports regardless of the cost.
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 banned the sale of the product when made from force-fed birds, both provisions taking effect in the State in the year 2012. This ban was repealed in 2015, but this decision is being challenged and it could be reimplemented at any time.
Viva! has printed nearly a million leaflets to raise awareness on the cruelty of foie-gras production in the past seven 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 and Channel 4's Come Dine with Me. In 2013, Viva! and L214’s investigation into footage of producers who were, at the time, supplying Gordon Ramsay’s foie-gras for his British restaurants made national front pages in the UK and across Europe. Fellow chef, Heston Blumenthal, removed foie-gras from all his menus after campaigning by Viva! in April 2015. Viva! also scored its biggest success to date by persuading Amazon – the world’s largest online retailer – to delist foie-gras on its UK marketplace.
Viva!'s campaign has seen national and local media coverage. The group's short film, The Wonderful World of Gavage, 'spoofs' the false assurances of the French foie-gras industry. Viva! works alongside French consumer group, Stop Gavage/L214 and promotes a vegan diet as ultimately the best way to help end the suffering of all farmed animals.
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
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)
http://www.franceagrimer.fr/content/download/37754/347071/file/STA-VBL-FOIE%20GRAS-2015-03-31.pdf (shows industry figures including production by weightn numbers killed and value of the industry 2015)