Posted on 16 Dec 2013 16:13
Most chefs, especially those on television, simply identify foie gras as duck liver, and explain that its high fat content gives it a luxurious velvety and buttery texture with a gamey, earthy flavor. It is an expensive luxury. Why? Is duck liver that rare? And why would ducks have such fatty livers? Therein lies the controversy. Duck livers, and goose livers (we'll get to that), are as plentiful as ducks and geese, but foie gras is something special and requires a little finagling.
Foie gras from ducks is called foie gras de canard and foie gras from geese is called fois gras d'Oie. Geese were its traditional source for thousands of years, but today ducks are the primary source. It is not a new food, by any means. Even the ancient Egyptians enjoyed it. and its consumption is recorded as early as 2500 BCE.2 They noticed that ducks and geese would tend to gorge themselves to get ready for their long migration. This produced the fatty liver that is so prized in the culinary world. The livers of the birds, during this pre-migratory gorge, built up the fat to store energy for ready use during the long trip ahead. They also noticed that the flavors of the fatty liver could be changed by altering the diet of the bird, so they started feeding the birds dried figs, which produced a sweeter flavor. This fat infused liver is so enjoyable to humans that it is eaten as a raw pâté , but is also lightly cooked to produce more depth of flavor, and used in sausages or as a terrine.1,2
Today, foie gras is produced by force-feeding ducks and geese prior to slaughter, by a process called gavage, which comes from the French gaver which means to gorge, or to stuff oneself or to force-feed. A tube is placed down the throat of the animals to deliver the food, rather than them just being allowed to eat as much as they want. Birds, naturally, have no gag reflex like we do so they don't regurgitate the mixture. So, through the tube, a mixture of corn boiled in duck fat is fed to them, up to three times a day, for two weeks prior to slaughter, to make the liver deposit the large amount of fat and produce the foie gras delicacy. It is claimed that this is a painless process for the birds. To help the process along, the birds are kept in close confined quarters so that they can not move around much, helping the liver lay down more fat.1,2,3
Many sources would have us believe when ancient people ate foie gras, they were just taking advantage of the natural feeding patterns of ducks and geese. However, this perception is mistaken. There is evidence that force feeding was practiced in Egypt, from 3500 BCE, on a fresco from Saqqara that depicts six Egyptians force-feeding geese. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Jews force-fed geese wheat grain soaked in a liquid. The French word for liver, foie, as well as the Italian word fegato, originates from the Latin iecure figatum, which translates to "fig-stuffed liver." The Romans force-fed the birds crushed figs, milk, and honey.4
Many anti animal-cruelty organizations, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and the Humane Society of the United States have denounced the production of foe gras by gavage. Many cities in the U.S. have placed bans on its sale. Chicago enacted a ban on the sale of foie gras in 2006, which Chicago chefs protested, filed suit against, and flagrantly ignored. The mayor of chicago, Richard Daley, called the ordinance silly. It was repealed in 2008.
In California a statute was enacted in 2004, and took effect in 2012, that prohibits gavage or force feeding of a bird for the purpose of enlarging the bird's liver beyond normal size. It is still legal to consume foie gras, import it outside of California, or give it as a gift. It just can't be produced in the traditional manner. Other states, such as Oregon, Massachusetts, Washington, Connecticut, Maryland, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Hawaii, have considered similar bans.
The European Union prohibits the production of foie gras by treaty, except in places where it is "current practice." The Convention for the Protection of Animals kept for Farming Practices was signed by 35 European countries and gavage is prohibited in Germany, Italy, Norway, Poland, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdoms, and most parts of Austria. Fois gras can be imported and purchased in these countries. Belgium, Spain, France, Bulgaria, and Hungary continue to produce foie gras.1
France protects its production and states that "Foie Gras belongs to to the protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France." France, and especially the area of Strasbourg, is a legendary producer of foie gras, and was one of the few places to continue producing and consuming foie gras even during medieval times, when the practice was all but forgotten.
Among professional chefs, the support or denouncement of foie gras varies. Wolfgang Puck and Albert Roux have spoken out against it, while Anthony Bourdain has stated that is fine as long as it is bough from farms that use humane practices, although I don't know what farms he has in mind and whether he is stating that any restaurants actually follow this practice.3 Chicago Chef Charlie Trotter, who is known for being hell-on-wheels and for serving tons and tons of foie gras in his self-named restaurant, had a large hand in igniting the controversy when he suddenly stopped serving foie gras because of the torture that the ducks endured. If you would like to read much more about the story of the foie gras controversy, including the decision of Charlie Trotter and subsequent events, check out The Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World's Fiercest Food Fight by Marl Caro.5
Elizabeth M. Williams and Stephanie Jane Carter, in The A-Z Encyclopedia of Food Controversies and the Law, make an interesting point about the catch-22 of protesting such luxury items like foie gras, that are produced only on a small scale. Very few people can afford to dine on foie gras and it is completely unnecessary for survival. It is, to put it bluntly, an indulgence. The banning of foie gras in Chicago, which was temporary, caused a back lash from certain chefs and others, as mentioned above. Fighting for the availability of foie gras, the authors point out, makes these advocates elitist and selfish.
On the other hand, the farmers who produce foie gras are very few, and they operate small farms. They do no have any kind of central organization or organized lobby, so they are not an effective group in lobbying for themselves. As small independent farms are increasingly being absorbed or smothered by large corporate producers, a successful campaign against these small foie gras producers could be seen as a blow to the small farms movement. These farmers, the authors assert, are much more vulnerable to animal rights activists than large corporate outfits, and we would never ban beef or chicken, even though there are legitimate, and grave, concerns about the treatment of cows and chickens as well.1
This article contains one or more Amazon affiliate links. See full disclosure.