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The production of foie gras


Brief history


If we refer to what is peddled by the foie gras industry, it would be the Ancient Egyptians who would have discovered that goose livers were slightly larger when they slaughtered the animals just before migration. Later on, the method of preparing fattened duck and goose livers would have spread throughout Europe. Nowadays, fattened duck and goose livers are called foie gras and are considered a culinary speciality.


In order to obtain foies gras outside the migration period and to ensure that they are as large as possible, the birds are force-fed on fattening farms. Foie gras was a luxury product until the 1980s, but with the industrialisation of its production, it has become an affordable product for the general public, although it retains its status as a luxury product.


Foie gras production before the 1980s


Foie gras production today


Description of the foie gras


Composition of the foie gras


Liver of a forced-fed duck versus liver of a non-forced-fed duck - image GAIA


This is the liver of a duck or goose that has been force-fed to the point where a large amount of fat has accumulated in the liver cells. The liver can no longer function properly and the bird suffers from a disease called liver steatosis, which can lead to death if left untreated. The purpose of force-feeding is to cause liver steatosis in birds. It is then a matter of slaughtering them just before the disease kills them in order to extract their liver and make a very lucrative business.


Other foie gras products


Foie gras is marketed in various forms. It is sometimes sold whole, raw or cooked, in blocks or pieces, fresh or frozen. In these cases, it contains 100% foie gras.


However, there are other culinary preparations containing foie gras. These preparations are regulated in France, and their name indicates a specific percentage of foie gras:

  • Goose and/or duck liver parfait: at least 75% of the foie gras is mechanically processed, to which lean liver and seasoning is added;

  • Medallion or pâté of goose and/or duck liver: at least 50% of foie gras, presented in a stone surrounded by a stuffing and seasoned;

  • Galantine of goose and/or duck liver: at least 50% of foie gras mixed with a stuffing and seasoned;

  • Mousse of goose and/or duck liver: at least 50% of foie gras mixed with a stuffing so as to give the product the characteristic texture of a mousse and seasoned.

These names are consecrated, as well as the mention foie gras, and may not be used in other contexts.


On the cooking side, foie gras, which exists in the form of a terrine, can be prepared in different ways:

  • Raw: basic product of the cooks' work. It is in this presentation that it can be prepared before canning or serving, it does not keep for long. It can be found on many "marchés au gras" in the south of France, as well as at goose or duck foie gras producers.

  • Semi-cooked: Semi-cooked foie gras has been pasteurised at less than 100°C by cooking it through and is usually presented in terrines or jars. Semi-cooked foie gras can be kept for several months in the refrigerator.

  • Cooked: also called traditional foie gras, it is sterilised in an autoclave at over 100°C. This is the most traditional form of sale. It can be stored in a cool, dry place for several years.

It is traditionally eaten cold as a starter, most often during festive meals (Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve for example). It can also be eaten hot, alone (pan-fried foie gras escalope) or as an ingredient in a more elaborate recipe.


A few words about the magret


The magret, usually of duck, is a part of the breast of the animal which has the particularity of being covered with a thick layer of fat. The duck breast was invented in the 80s, with the industrialisation of foie gras production: the rest of the duck carcass also had to be used. The magret is therefore a product resulting from the force-feeding of birds, just like foie gras.


Duck anatomy diagram - image CL


A few words about feathers and down


After slaughter, duck and goose carcasses must be plucked. The industry valorises the feathers and down by selling them to the textile industry for duvets, cushions and comforters.


Duck and goose feathers and down are therefore very often obtained from force-fed birds for the foie gras industry. In addition, especially for geese, they are sometimes plucked raw several times before being force-fed and then slaughtered. Raw plucking is also a torture for the birds.


Goose plucked raw -image Vier Pfoten International


The production of foie gras


The birds used


Contrary to the collective imagination, the overwhelming majority of birds used for foie gras production are ducks, most often mallards, and not geese. The latter were used almost exclusively for the production of foie gras until the 1980s. However, for reasons of productivity, it is mainly ducks that are used nowadays.


Mallard ducks are preferred by the industry because they are more profitable. Indeed, during the feeding period, the ducks are force-fed twice a day, whereas for the geese, it is necessary to force-feed them three times a day. Thus, the same feeder can take care of many more ducks than geese. On the other hand, the amount of feed required is less for ducks than for geese.


In France, the proportion of geese used for foie gras production was just over 2% in 2001 (2.26%) and fell below 1% in 2018 (0.86%). However, the illustrations in the articles dealing with foie gras production systematically depict geese, as if production had not changed.


Proportion of ducks and geese in French production


Sexing


As in any industrial poultry farm, the birds are born in hatcheries, i.e. heated cabinets. Since birds are social animals, in which the education of the young is of major importance, the fact that they are born in these conditions and then evolve only with other birds of their own age is in itself a form of violence.


Birth at the industrial hatchery


Only male ducks are used for the production of foie gras, as their liver can reach twice the size of that of female ducks. When the ducklings are born, the males and females are separated, this is called sexing. The females are killed immediately, either by crushing them in a blender (the industry speaks of homogenisation), or by gassing them, or by any other inexpensive method (for example, smothering them in rubbish bags). In some cases, they can be sold as roasted ducklings.


Sexing


Beak trimming


As in all industrial animal husbandry, animals are confined, which causes a lot of stress and inevitably leads to aggressive reactions. To limit aggressive behaviour, ducks' beaks are burnt at the tip when they are a few days old.


The beak is the part of the body with which the ducks do everything: looking for food, smoothing their feathers, etc. Cutting off the tip of their beak is a bit like cutting off the last phalanx of the fingers of a hand for humans.


Cutting off the end of the beak


Fattening


Pre-feeding


In the pre-feeding period, the feeding pattern of the birds is organised to widen the crop and to improve the performance of the feeding phase. This is called pre-feeding. The farmer restricts access to food during certain hours to encourage the birds to force-feed when the food is available again. A duck liver can already weigh up to 180 g at the end of this period.


During this phase, the birds are usually housed collectively in sheds, as in most poultry farms. They generally have no access to a body of water, which is contrary to their biological needs. But should it be remembered that palmipedes are aquatic birds?


When the industry shows images of "fat palmipedes" farms, it is always during this period, because the birds are then a little more "free", even if the available space is overcrowded.


Pre-feeding shed


Force-feeding


Feeding begins when the ducks are between 10 and 14 weeks old (average in 2002: 89.4 days). This period lasts between 12 and 15 days for ducks (average in 2002: 13.4 days). During this period, large quantities of feed (corn mash) are injected into the birds' gullets with a tube about 20-30 cm long (the embuc).


Feeding takes place twice a day for the ducks, i.e. every twelve hours. The amount of feed is gradually increased from 190 g to 450 g of feed just before slaughter. For geese, force-feeding takes place three times a day, which is why ducks are preferred by the industry. In the past, force-feeding was done manually, with a funnel. In the 1980s, pneumatic feeding (with a pneumatic pump) was introduced. Nowadays, hydraulic instruments (with a hydraulic pump) allow the feed to be administered in 2 to 3 seconds instead of 45 to 60 seconds manually.


Force-feeding


Increased mortality during force-feeding


In 1998, the Council of Europe commissioned a report on the welfare of birds reared for foie gras from its committee of scientific experts, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).


According to the report, in the last two weeks before the force-feeding period, mortality is only 0.2%, while in the two weeks before the force-feeding period, mortality increases to 2%, up to 4%: i.e. ten to twenty times higher mortality during the force-feeding period.


EFSA writes that mortality is probably caused by injury, heat, stress and of course liver failure. Slaughter is planned at a time when mortality would become too high to guarantee the profitability of the activity.


Housing patterns


Individual cages


Because the birds must be easily caught to put the embuc in their beak down to their oesophagus, they are often kept in cages that restrict their movements.


In the 1980s, the industry therefore generalised the use of individual cages, known as "epinettes". In these cages, the birds can barely move, cannot stand upright or spread their wings. These cages are screened, which causes serious damage to the ducks' legs. The birds stay in these cages for the whole feeding period until slaughter.


At the time of the EFSA report, this type of cage was the most common on fattening farms.


Individual cages


Collective cages


Since 2015, the French industry has decided to generalise the use of collective cages in order to avoid criticism concerning the housing of birds, but not without ensuring that the performance of fattening remains similar to that of individual cages.


Collective cages


Today, this type of accommodation during the feeding phase has become the norm. These collective cages have the same immobilising function as individual cages. The birds are immobilised by lowering the upper part of the cage during force-feeding, thus placing the birds on the ground. The feeder can then grasp the neck of the duck without difficulty.


These cages are no better than individual cages, because the floor is still screened, and at five or six per cage, the birds have no more room than before and still have no access to water for drinking or bathing.


Force-feeding in collective cages


Slaughter


When they are taken out of their cage, the birds are so sick that they can hardly move. They are under heat stress and have difficulty breathing because their enlarged liver is crushing their lungs. In addition, they often have injuries to their legs from the wire mesh floor of the cages and suffer from intense thirst.


At the slaughterhouse, they are stunned by electrocution before their throats are cut. As in all slaughter lines, the pace of slaughter causes many misses, and very often the ducks' throats are cut while they are still conscious.


Slaughter


Removal of livers


What about the others?


The other birds used


We have only spoken here of the most widespread method of production, that of the mallard ducks in the industrial production of foie gras. But there are variations in the way foie gras is produced.


First of all, the birds used. These are not always mallards, but sometimes geese and more rarely Barbary ducks. However, it should be noted that today goose foie gras is an extremely small minority: in France, geese only represent 1% of the birds used. Hungary is the country that uses geese the most.


The so-called small producers


Of course, the industry does not have 100% of the market and there are still producers who are making foie gras "à l'ancienne", i.e. with a funnel, and who keep the birds in ground pens. However, since the 1980s, this method of production has become extremely marginal. A farm of this type can only have a few dozen birds, compared to 1,000 to 2,000 for an industrial farm. In other words, very few still force-feed in the old-fashioned way...


Today, we distinguish rather the short chain from the long chain, which looks at the number of intermediaries (farm sales or not), but not the mode of production itself, which remains the same in both cases, i.e. the one we have described in this article.


The proportion of these small producers (i.e. the short chain, excluding large groups) remains very low, since they represented less than 12% of total production in France in 2006. The French sector is largely dominated by three large groups (Euralis Gastronomie, Delpeyrat and Labeyrie) which take over 70% of the market.


Pour finir


The production of foie gras is overwhelmingly an industrial process, ultra-optimised to maximise profits, to the detriment of the birds' well-being, of course. After all, the aim is to take the liver from them.


Duck carcasses at the slaughterhouse


In 2009, no less than 26,600 tonnes of foie gras were produced worldwide, representing approximately 50 million force-fed birds.


As the foie gras industry only uses male individuals and females are killed in the first days of their lives because they are not profitable enough, foie gras production concerns, on a global level, approximately 80 million birds each year...


According to customs figures for imports into our country, Switzerland, just to satisfy its citizens' appetite for foie gras, the industry kills more than a million birds every year.


Fortunately, there are alternatives to foie gras, be they vegetable alternatives, and soon there will be cultured foie gras (obtained by cell cultures) or foie gras obtained without force-feeding.


On the other hand, foie gras is far from being a necessary product. And it is increasingly obvious that a large part of the population is uncomfortable finding it on the table, whether it is said or not. The best thing is to do without it, don't you think?


Joy, a survivor of the foie gras industry


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