Foie Gras Facts

Foie gras is considered a delicacy in many parts of the world, but it has also faced a great deal of controversy.  In recent decades, people have developed a growing awareness of the unethical nature of this particular food.  Others argue that it is no worse than eating any other meat and that it is possible to get ethical foie gras. 

Upon closer examination, however, it becomes clear that choosing to consume foie gras is not an ethical decision.

To fully understand why foie gras is not ethical, you must first understand what it is.  This is important because most people only have a vague idea of foie gras, likely that it is expensive and meat-based.

What is Foie Gras?

Foie gras is the fattened liver of a goose or duck. It translates to “fat liver” in French.

Foie gras flavor is described as delicate, rich, and buttery.

Foie gras is sold as the whole liver or prepared into a pate or mousse.

The Process is Unethical

How Foie Gras is Made

Traditionally, foie gras is made by fattening a goose or duck by force-feeding it corn using a feeding tube. This process is called gavage. Some areas of the world produce foie gras via natural overfeeding.

In most cases, ducks used to make foie gras will be force-fed two times a day for 12.5 days. Geese are usually fed three times daily by force for 17 days. Typically, the ducks and geese are slaughtered at 100 and 112 days, respectively.

fattening the goose or duck through force-feeding

the inhumane results

Force Feeding

One of the biggest issues with foie gras production is the fact that the geese or ducks are force-fed so they can gain weight and have the fatty livers that foie gras requires. The idea of force-feeding any living creature is inhumane and unethical to most people, and is a major concern.

It Expands the Liver Dramatically

Another major complaint about the process of preparing poultry for foie gras production is that it requires the livers to reach up to ten times its normal size.  You do not need a medical or veterinary license to understand that this is unnatural and unhealthy.  It is also obviously likely to cause discomfort.

Expanded Abdomens Cause Problems

The biggest problem with dramatically expanded livers is that blood flow is obstructed, which impairs the liver’s functionality.  Additionally, the expansion of the birds’ abdomen means that it becomes harder for the geese or ducks to breathe.  The expanded abdomens also make it harder for the birds to walk. 

Liver Problems for Humans

Force feeding animals can cause physical injury to the liver, in addition to dramatically expanding it.  If this stress continues for too long, then amyloids may form from the buildup of excess protein.  If a person consumes foie gras with amyloids, they may develop amyloidosis, which can be dangerous, especially for those with rheumatoid arthritis or other inflammatory conditions.

It Causes Stress

Research also shows that force-feeding ducks and geese produces stress responses in them.  This was scientifically measured via the serum corticosterone levels and panting behaviors.  The results clearly indicate that force-feeding ducks or geese via feeding tubes increases their stress, making their life much more uncomfortable and less pleasant. 

It Produces Fear

Some evidence has shown that ducks and geese who are force-fed respond to humans with fear, with a similar fear for the entire feeding procedure.  To make matters worse, some of the newer breeds used, such as Mulards, are even more likely to become afraid of the procedure and people involved.

This means that throughout the short life of the geese or ducks raised to make foie gras, they must live with fear, including any time that a human approaches.

Injuries Can Occur

There is also some evidence that the actual force-feeding of ducks and geese causes injuries.  Specifically, the use of feeding tubes to force-feed the poultry can result in damage to the esophagus.  Multiple recent scientific studies show that gavage feeding of this sort can result in inflammation or injury to the esophagus.

Death is Possible

It is also worth noting that birds can die from their livers being expanded too much. If the force-feeding goes on for too long, it can lead to death. That is why the force-feeding does not typically occur throughout the fowl’s entire life; just a few weeks. 

In fact, the mortality rate for birds that are force fed is between 2 and 4%.  By contrast, it is only about 0.2% in similar birds that are age-matched but not force fed.  Force feeding the birds increases their mortality rate throughout their entire lives, not just the force feeding period.

Unethical Animal Treatment

poor conditions

Although this is not always the case, it is very common for the ducks and geese raised for foie gras to be housed in inhumane conditions. They are unlikely to have sufficient space, and cleanliness is often a concern.

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Injuries are Common

Unfortunately, it is common for small cages and poor conditions to result in injuries for the geese or ducks, in addition to the injuries related to the actual tube-feeding.

  • One of the relatively common problems is for birds to experience lesions from skin necrosis on their sternum. It happens in the wild as well, but is more common in ducks in cages due to large pectoralis profundus. The new breed of Mulard ducks that are now more common for foie gras production seem to be even more likely to develop these lesions when they are kept in smaller cages, which is common. 
  • Mulard breeds have a higher risk of getting broken bones during slaughter and transport. All poultry experience a risk of injury during transportation, so ducks and geese for foie gras also have to deal with this.
  • Fattened ducks also have a higher risk of some conditions, including heat stress

It should go without saying that any injuries to the birds used to produce foie gras are inhumane, as they can be painful and damaging to the animal. It is also rare for these injuries to be treated, since they do not affect the quality of foie gras, just the well-being of the duck.

Difficulty Checking Animal Welfare

Although not always the case, some breeders will keep the birds in near darkness during the period of force feeding, at times when the ducks or geese are not being fed. That makes it even harder to check on the animals’ welfare and address any issues. That difficulty applies to the breeders, who cannot easily confirm the condition of their animals, and the difficulty from outside organizations in confirming those conditions. 

So-Called “Ethical” Foie Gras

concerns

One of the biggest arguments in favor of foie gras production is that it can be produced in a more ethical way. The argument points to places where the ducks and geese are naturally fed and encouraged to eat more. They have more room and are in more natural spaces instead of cages. They simply have incredibly excessive food supplies so they overeat.

Some argue that this method of raising the animals is humane, but that is not the case. It is more humane than constricting them to cages, but it still involves intentionally causing harm and serious health problems for the animals.

young geese to become foie gras

It Does Not

Produce

a Quality Life

One would not intentionally overfeed a baby or a pet.  As humans, we accept that overeating leads to many different issues, and the same is true for ducks and geese.  While free-range foie gras is better than the animals raised in cages, it is still far from ethical.

many

problems

still occur

The process of free-range foie gras still involves intentionally doing harm to the animal. The animals will not be restricted by cages, but they will still experience many of the previously mentioned factors that make foie gras unethical. 

The birds will still have expanded livers, which result in constricted blood flow and a higher chance of death. Their overly bloated abdomens will make it harder to walk and breathe. Using these so-called “ethical” methods only eliminates some of the concerns, not all.

Other Arguments

 

“We Treat Other Animals Raised for Meat the Same Way”

About the Argument

A common argument is that if you are okay with raising animals for meat, then you should be fine with doing the same for foie gras. Those who make this point argue that you can choose to purchase foie gras from farms that treat the animals better, such as those that consider themselves “ethical” or do not use cages.  

Another common argument is that you cannot complain about foie gras production if you eat any meat, or are okay with raising animals to produce it. This point argues that the conditions are pretty much the same, with the force feeding being the only major difference between the two.

Counterargument

There are a few issues with these arguments. For example, as mentioned, those “ethical” farms and raising practices still have problems, as they do not have the animal’s best interests at heart. Secondly, just because we raise animals in inhumane conditions to eat meat, that does not make it okay. Even if you choose to eat meat, it would be better to choose cage-free meat from animals that are treated well. Small changes, such as avoiding foie gras, are better than no changes at all. 

The other issue is the most important one: the overfeeding makes it different. When animals are raised for meat, they are not typically overfed. Given the long list of health problems associated with the overfeeding of ducks and geese for foie gras, from livers that are 10 times the size to expanded abdomens, it is clear that there are additional concerns in this situation. In other words, foie gras production takes the same issues associated with raising other animals for meat and then adds to them. 

“THEY CAN HANDLE FORCE FEEDING”

About the Argument

Some argue that the idea of force feeding ducks or geese should not be compared to force feeding humans, and doing so is anthropomorphizing the animals. They argue that the throats of ducks evolved to swallow larger items, including rocks and whole fish. This argument says that if the ducks can swallow fish complete with fins and scales without a problem, force feeding will not hurt their throats.

Counterargument

While this may seem like a strong point in theory, the evidence of damaged esophagi in ducks and geese that have been force fed proves otherwise.

“They Cannot Suffocate During Feeding”

About the Argument

You may also come across the argument that it is okay to force feed ducks or geese because they can still breathe even with the feeding tube in place. This argument comes from the fact that they have separate pathways for air and food.

Counterargument

Yes, it is good to know that the ducks will not suffocate while being fed, but that does not eliminate the other concerns. Difficulty breathing during the actual feeding is rarely a main argument made against foie gras. Even when breathing comes up as a problem, it is more often related to difficulty breathing once the ducks’ or geese’s abdomens have expanded. Being able to breathe during feeding does not eliminate that concern.

“ENLARGING DUCK LIVERS IS NATURAL”

About the Argument

Some people argue that the concept of enlarging the livers of ducks or geese to create foie gras is not a problem, since it naturally occurs in some species. Specifically, certain migrating species of wildfowl will indeed naturally eat enough to enlarge their livers.

Counterargument

The problem with this argument, however, is that the species of wildfowl that have been known to do this are not the same ones used for foie gras production. The most commonly used duck species when producing foie gras is a hybrid from female Pekin ducks and male Muscovy ducks. This is problematic since neither fly and the Muscovy does not even migrate. 

In other words, while some ducks have adapted to expand their livers naturally as part of migration, that is not the case for the ducks or geese used to make foie gras. There is no reason to scientifically assume that the same would be true for these animals. 

Additionally, those species of ducks that seasonally expand their livers do not do so to the extent that is done for foie gras production. Those seasonal changes only increase the liver size up to 30 to 50 percent. By contrast, foie gras production increases it up to 1,000% or ten times.

“IT IS IN THE BEST INTEREST OF THE BREEDERS TO TREAT THE DUCKS AND GEESE WELL”

About the Argument

Another common argument is that breeders will not mistreat the ducks or geese, since it is in their best interest not to. Some argue that foie gras quality is better from fowl that have been well-cared-for, so they make efforts do so. Others argue that if the birds were mishandled, their livers would become discolored and bruised, as this is a type of injury they are highly susceptible to.

Counterargument

Both of these points have issues. Even if the best foie gras comes from well-cared-for fowl, the status of foie gras as a delicacy means that nearly any company producing it could find a market. Even lower quality foie gras from poorly-treated poultry could be used in processed foie gras or cheaper versions.

Processed foie gras also counters the second element of this argument. If the foie gras involves a bruised or discolored liver, that does not fully eliminate profits. It simply gets turned into processed and canned items. These are less popular in certain markets, but they still exist, and are more than enough to make processed foie gras still profitable. Breeders are unlikely to care much about handling the birds carefully, in case of discoloration, since the poultry would still not be a complete waste.

Banning of Foie Gras

Because of the ethical controversy regarding foie gras, many countries and states have banned it. Some countries have made it illegal to produce it, while others have made it illegal to import it.  Others do both.  

India was the first country to ban its importation, doing so in 2014. It is illegal to produce foie gras in Australia, Argentina, most Austrian provinces, the Czech Republic, Finland, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Poland, Norway, Italy, Germany, Israel, and Luxembourg. In the United States, producing it is banned in California, selling it is banned in Chicago, and New York City will have a ban of it when produced via forced feeding as of 2022. 

France shows no signs of changing the legal status of foie gras, and considers it part of the country’s “protected cultural and gastronomical heritage.” But, with the spread of bans in other countries, there is hope. 

Some retailers have also officially banned the sale of foie gras within their brands, including the House of Fraser, Harvey Nichols, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Amazon UK, and Lidl.

The above image is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Blue:  Countries and regions where the production of foie gras is prohibited.

Red:  Main foie gras-producing countries and regions.

Updated May 18, 2020

Conclusion

Foie gras is considered a delicacy, but it is produced via unethical methods. It is traditionally produced by force feeding the ducks or geese with feeding tubes, which can cause injuries. The birds are usually kept in poor conditions.  But even when raised in better conditions, the overfeeding results in serious discomfort and health problems, meaning that the fowl suffer greatly during their short lives.

A Better Way

While we would like to lessen the demand for foie gras, if restaurants must harvest duck or goose livers, there is a better way. Ducks and geese can be raised using humane farming standards, such as pasture-fed techniques, no cages, and certainly no force feeding!  See our Get Involved page for more information on how you can help this happen.

Learn More

How Local Organizations are Putting an End to Foie Gras After Banning in NYC

How to Help Local Movements End Foie Gras Production