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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