Archive for May, 2012

More on Foie Gras

I didn’t really want to get into a tit-for-tat debate about foie gras but someone called Sam has left a lengthy comment on my last blog post which I am responding to in the hope it clarifies my point of view.

This is what Sam has to say:

As a share holder of course you are going to side with the restaurant and the practice of force feeding geese , despite not having any real evidence to back up your assertions that this is humane and the geese are all good with it. I dont care how much you gloss it over it is still cruelty and by the way sow stalls will be illegal from 2015 in NZ .
You say these people are “bullying” the restaurant , they have a right to protest and id hardly call standing peacefully with a few placards handing out leaflets “bullying” more like exercising ones right to freedom of expression in NZ. This group have sent letters to two food places in Wellington regarding Foie gras and thats all that was needed for them to take it off the shelves . If they were to protest the french embassy that would have no effect at all and not be informing potential eaters of this product , by the way the French government has made it illegal to even have vegetarian options in their schools so they would be wasting their time trying to lobby the french government.

This is my response:

Dear Sam,

Firstly I don’t say that all foie gras farming is humane and I certainly don’t “gloss over” the appalling treatment of birds in some factory farms. I have in fact, directed people towards YouTube and clips that document what I call the shameful side of foie gras. However, I also know from my own experience (and that is evidence enough for me) that this is not the norm. All the foie-gras farms I’ve seen are tidy humane places where the birds free-range on pasture until the gavage period at which stage they’re penned in groups with lots of room to move. The force-feeding is quick and the birds are not at all upset by it. Ducks and geese are not humans, they are designed to take big lumps of food straight down their necks – have you ever watched a water bird swallow a whole fish? 

My point is that there are good and bad farmers. The anti-foie gras brigade choose to back up their view by focusing on the worst-case factory farms that treat their birds badly.  This is like condemning all beef farming because some operators confine cattle on feedlots, or saying people shouldn’t eat pork because some pig farmers keep pigs in horrible conditions. Why do you think foie gras is any different? Don’t you think that a better response is for restaurants and consumers to support good producers by buying animal products from farms with good welfare and environmental standards – whether it be pork, eggs, beef or foie-gras? This is the policy at Le Canard.  

However, the main point of my blog post was to object to the bullying behaviour of the people who have been protesting outside Le Canard restaurant every weekend for the last six months. You object to my use of the term ‘bullying’. What else do you call the behaviour of people who will not respect the opinions of others and who use intimidating tactics to make the object of their protest behave in the way they see fit? Six months of leafleting customers and waving placards outside the restaurant – not to mention the xenophobic phone calls, and demands that the chef alter his menu – certainly fits my definition of bullying. 

You seem to think that because the activists are not breaking the law by their protest action, it’s OK. Have you considered that there are also no laws against the cyber-bullying that has driven some young people to suicide? Bullying may be legal but it’s not morally acceptable. Clearly, the protestors’ unspoken threat is: take foie gras off the menu or we will do our best to destroy your business. I find it bizarre that you can support the protestors’ right to freedom of expression but not the chef’s right to choose what he puts on his menu.



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I’m driven to write this post because the restaurant in which I have a share is being subjected to a bullying protest action by a group of animal welfare activists. Every weekend night for the past six months they have been outside Le Canard restaurant in Wellington accosting passers-by and restaurant diners with leaflets demanding they “Say No to Foie Gras”.

Le Canard (The Duck) specialises in the cuisine of South West France, specifically the Pèrigord region which is home to truffles, cèpes, duck and foie gras. Its customers dine at the restaurant because they like the style of food and the authentic ambiance it offers. No one has to order foie gras; those who do, know exactly what it is: the fattened liver of a force-fed (gavaged) duck or goose.

Foie Gras prepared mi-cuit for sale at a French market

It is not – as the protestors would have us believe – a liver that is diseased/infected with hepatic lipidosis. Can you imagine the health authorities of France or New Zealand allowing a diseased avian product to be sold or exported?  The gavage process is not done to make the animal as “sick as possible”, and “many birds” do not “asphyxiate to death” during the process. The highly emotive leaflet circulated by the protestors takes the very worst instances of factory-farmed cruelty and presents it as the status quo. Let me redress the balance.

I have worked as an agricultural journalist; I am now a food writer. I have lived in France, I’ve visited foie gras farms, I’ve seen the gavage in action, I’ve discussed the issue with practically every French person I’ve met and I’ve researched foie gras production for a feature I made for Radio New Zealand in 2006. This is what I’ve learned.

There are good and bad farmers. Just as New Zealand has farmers who mistreat their animals, so it is in France. Both countries have regulations to keep the worst operators in check; sometimes – as in the case of the Crafar farms – it can take some time for the authorities to act.

It is also true that both countries sanction questionable farming practices by law. These laws enable us to farm on an intensive scale and produce the food we like to eat. In New Zealand it is perfectly legal to keep sows in farrowing crates and layer hens in cages where they have little room to move. In France it’s legal to force-feed ducks and geese for the production of foie gras.

Both countries set minimum standards and both countries have farmers who choose to farm at a much higher standard. These people farm less intensively, often free ranging their livestock and opting to take less profit for a more natural or artisan operation. So it is with foie gras. Some foie gras is produced intensively; some of it is produced by artisans.

In Périgord the producers have formed a regionally defined association to distance themselves from the practices of some factory produced foie gras that has become big business in parts of France but especially in Eastern European countries that have lower standards.

The duck and geese farms in Périgord tend to be small scale. The birds are hatched and raised free-range on pasture until the last 2 or 3 weeks of their lives when they go into a barn that’s separated into pens. They are gavaged 2 or 3 times a day in a process that takes less than two seconds per animal (farms are equipped with pumping equipment that delivers a measured dose, quickly and gently) I’ve read about birds lining up to be fed; in my experience this is an exaggeration but they are certainly not perturbed and I’ve seen geese walk off with tails wagging after the gavage.

Sheep in shearing pens are handled much more roughly than these birds. The farmers know they won’t get a good liver if the bird is stressed; it’s in their interests to treat them gently. It’s certainly not in their interests to grow the liver as big as possible so the birds can’t stand up. Despite what the activists say about farmers wanting to maximise profits by getting the biggest livers, the premium fresh duck foie gras (classified ‘extra’) is close to 500g; if it gets much bigger than that, the fat simply melts out during the cooking process leaving an inferior product.

Cruel and unnatural?

Some people will tell you it’s natural for a goose or duck to load up on food; it helps them prepare for a long migration. That’s true but not to the extent that it’s done for foie gras. One farmer summed it up for me when I asked if she didn’t think it was cruel to stuff food down a goose’s neck. She agreed it wasn’t natural but said it wasn’t cruel. She genuinely liked her geese and explained that there was a real art to gavaging a bird gently with just the right amount of corn mash.

Another farmer who said much the same, also added that it is hypocritical for a New Zealander (me) to suggest the gavage is unnatural when the New Zealand economy depends on forcing cows to produce hundreds of litres of milk when naturally it would only produce enough for its calf. Point taken. In the end we agreed that most, if not all, animal farming is based on pushing natural behaviours beyond what is natural.

Now for the bad farmers. You need only search YouTube to find some horrific examples of ducks kept in single cages with necks protruding, ready for the next gavage. The pipe is administered twice a day for two weeks with no kind words or gentle stroking – they may as well be on a conveyor belt. This is undoubtedly the shameful side of foie gras farming but is it any worse than battery egg production? Layer hens may not be subjected to force feeding but they do live in those tiny cages for their entire laying lives – an awful lot longer than two weeks.

Just as there are good and bad farmers there is good and bad foie gras. When my French friends buy foie gras in France they make the same distinction many ethical shoppers here make between battery and free-range eggs, or between conventionally raised pork and free range. They buy foie gras (fresh or prepared as a paté) from a local farmer whose reputation they trust. That way they know it will be good quality and that it’s come from a duck or goose that has been free-ranged and well treated during the gavage. Second best is to buy foie gras from one of the established reputable companies that process foie gras from their own contracted farmers in France.

Such a company is Rougié. Based in the Dordogne, it has been producing foie gras since 1875. Le Canard buys Rougié bloc foie-gras from a New Zealand importer.

A Cowardly Protest

People who feel strongly about foie gras would be better to aim their protest action at the governments of France and New Zealand: France for sanctioning the production of foie gras and New Zealand for allowing its importation. But instead of protesting outside parliament or the French Embassy, these activists choose to bully the little guy – a talented young chef who is trying to build a small business in recessionary times.  Pascal Bedel chose to settle his family in this country because it gave him a chance to start his own restaurant and because he admired the Kiwi spirit of equality and fair play. After 6 months of provocation from people I can only describe as bullies, I hope he still feels the same way.

By the Way…

Anyone who wants to avoid eating the product of a force-fed duck should also avoid eating  the readily available imported cans of confit de canard. The duck confit is made from the legs and thighs of fattened ducks. Which means if the protestors really knew what they were protesting against and wished to do it equably and intelligently they should be targeting every business in New Zealand selling imported duck products from France, not just the one small restaurant they’ve identified that serves foie gras.

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