What is Foie Gras?
‘Foie gras’ means ‘fatty liver’ and is produced by force-feeding ducks and geese twice or three times a day with large amounts of feed for a period of two to three weeks before they are slaughtered. Force-feeding increases the size of the liver by six to ten times and the fat content of the liver exceeds 50%.
The birds most commonly used for foie gras production are the Mule (or Mulard) duck (a cross between the Muscovy and domestic duck) and the Landes (or Landaise) goose.
France is the largest producer of foie gras (83% of world production in 2002), mostly from ducks (95%). France also produces around 25% of the world’s goose foie gras. Hungary is also a major producer (9% of world production) and is the main producer of goose foie gras (60% of world production). Bulgaria produces mainly duck foie gras (5% of world production), most of which (88%) is exported to France. Over 400,000 birds are used annually for foie gras production in the United States alone.
The ducks' housing
During the rearing period, birds are usually kept in barns and may have access to the outdoors for part of the period but generally do not have access to sufficient water for preening and swimming.
During the force-feeding period, the birds are usually confined in pens or group cages. However, ducks may be kept in individual cages which are so small that they cannot turn around, stand erect or stretch their wings. The slatted or wire mesh floors can cause foot injuries. Birds may be kept in near darkness during the force-feeding period, except when being fed.
The force feeding procedure
A feeding tube is inserted into the oesophagus and boiled maize mixed with fat is delivered by an auger (a screw which is operated by hand or an electric motor) or a pneumatic or hydraulic system. Mechanised systems may deliver the feed in just 2-3 seconds, allowing one person to force-feed up to 400 caged ducks in an hour.
Ducks are typically force-fed twice a day for 12 to 15 days and geese 3 times a day for 15 to 21 days. The amount of food in every meal is much greater than a duck would usually eat, the amount is increased over the force-feeding period. If force-feeding is stopped, the ducks adapt their diet and greatly reduce their feed intake for several days.
The birds move away from the person who force-feeds them, indicating that they dislike the procedure. After force-feeding, the birds usually pant and have difficulty moving but still try to move away from the person who force-fed them.
The EU’s Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare (SCAHAW) concluded in 1998 that “force feeding, as currently practised, is detrimental to the welfare of the birds.” The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) stated in 2002 that the production of fatty liver for foie gras “raises serious animal welfare issues and it is not a practice that is condoned by FAO.”
Health and welfare problems caused by force-feeding
Force-feeding results in steatosis of the liver, a condition in which large fat globules accumulate in the liver cells to an extent never seen in any normal healthy birds. This condition is considered pathological by most animal welfare experts.
Health and welfare problems in force-fed birds include:
- Fear and distress caused by catching, restraint and the force-feeding procedure;
- Discomfort, pain and injuries, with the possibility of secondary infection, due to the repeated insertion of the feeding tube;
- Liver structure and function is severely altered and compromised;
- The enlarged liver may cause discomfort and malaise and forces the legs outwards so that the birds have difficulty standing and their natural gait and ability to walk are severely impaired;
- Loose faeces;
- Increased incidence of bone fractures and liver lesions;
- Increased incidence of respiratory disorders;
- Reduced activity;
- “Wet neck” – a condition where the neck feathers become curved and sticky;
Mortality during the force-feeding period is typically over 4% in geese and over 3% in ducks, which is 10 to 20 times higher than in non-force-fed birds.
If the birds were not slaughtered for foie-gras after a month, it is generally accepted that they would die from the effects of force-feeding, in particular from failure of liver function.
But still the Trade is Thriving
Worldwide, 40 million geese and ducks are bred each year for the production of foie gras. Ducks make up 96% of the force-fed animals due to the fact that they are cheaper to keep and feed than geese.
The largest consumers of Hungarian foie gras are France, Japan and Belgium. They are closely followed by Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Slovakia and Spain.
To find out more about the current legal situation and how you can help please visit the links to to right.