Made from fatty duck and goose liver, many consider foie gras to be a delicacy. From French to English, it translates to “fat liver.” But, what is foie gras and how is it made?
While it is most commonly associated with France, this food is eaten all over the world. It has roots as far back as ancient Egypt.
The History of Foie Gras
According to The Comité Interprofessionnel des Palmpipèdes à Foie Gras (CIFOG)—a committee that represents professionals in the fattened poultry industry—a painting in an ancient Egyptian tomb portrays a slave feeding figs to a goose.
The painting—as well as similar drawings in other tombs—has been interpreted as proof that foie gras has been around for thousands of years.
Jewish people historically fattened geese as a lard replacement, and the Romans also enjoyed liver fattened by figs. CIFOG notes it was first served up by the Romans at a banquet in the 1st century B.C.
It was during the Roman Empire that foie gras became the French staple we know today. Now, around three-quarters of its production takes place in France.
What Is Foie Gras?
To make foie gras, ducks and geese are force-fed a diet of cornmeal through a pipe to fatten up their livers. Foie gras refers to the entire liver, but pâté de foie gras is also common. This is a spread consisting of foie gras and white wine.
Registered dietitian Savanna Shoemaker, MS, RDN, wrote for Healthline: “the fattening process is what makes foie gras a delicacy, as the livers of ducks and geese that haven’t gone through this process aren’t as fatty or smooth. In fact, the force-feeding process enlarges the liver of the birds by up to 10 times.”
Foie Gras Cruelty
Many consider foie gras production to be cruel and inhumane. It can cause major health issues for the birds involved, including damage to their legs. Some geese and ducks involved in production cannot stand due to the extra weight of being force-fed up to two kilograms of food a day. They can also experience damage to the throat.
“Force-feeding is known as gavage and causes a number of injuries,” Chris DeRose, the founder of animal rights nonprofit Last Chance for Animals, told LIVEKINDLY.
He said: “[These injuries include] bruising or perforation of the esophagus; hemorrhaging and inflammation of the neck resulting from the repeated insertion of the pipe to the throat; asphyxia caused by food improperly forced into the trachea; and abdominal pain as the liver expands in a space that cannot accommodate its size.”
DeRose added that wounds of the esophagus can result in infection. Other illnesses and diseases that can come from force-feeding include hepatic lipidosis and malnourishment.
“For these reasons, mortality rates for force-fed ducks are 10 to 20 times higher than those for non force-fed ducks,” added DeRose. “Behavioural evidence shows that ducks and geese experience fear, as well as acute and chronic stress from the multiple daily force-feedings and the pain associated with them.”
Foie Gras Bans
Because of the cruelty involved, the production of foie gras is banned in several countries. These include Italy, Germany, Denmark, and Norway.
In 2012, a ban on the sale of foie gras in the state of California went into effect. Out-of-state producers have challenged the law, but earlier this month, a California judge ruled that the ban is constitutional.
According to Kitty Block—the president and CEO of the Humane Society International—not only did the judge deny the producers’ request to strike the law down, but they also “warned that the filing of any more similar challenges to the constitutionality of the law will result in court-ordered sanctions.”
She wrote in a blog post: “This victory is yet another reason why companies and producers clinging to abusive practices like force-feeding … should discard these practices once and for all.”
In November last year, New York City also passed a foie gras ban, which will go into effect from 2022. Anyone who violates the ban may be subject to a fine of up to $2,000.
DeRose and his team played an important role in the campaign for both the ban in New York City and in California. According to him, both bans are “damaging to the industry.”
However, there is a long way to go in terms of banning it across the U.S.
He explained: “Factory farms are business and – like many businesses – they will adapt to shifting market forces by reducing their output or finding new ways to sell their product.” He added: “we may have won a decisive battle in California and New York City, but we have yet to win the proverbial war.”
Vegan Foie Gras Options
It’s difficult to find a vegan version on supermarket shelves, but you could make your own. Recipes like this one from Full of Plants use plant-based ingredients to create a similar look and taste to pâté de foie gras, but without the cruelty.
According to the recipe author, it took 10 attempts to get the dish right. The result is a “vegan foie gras that has a rich and creamy texture.”
In collaboration with animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Michelin-starred chef Alexis Gauthier created a “faux gras” recipe in 2018. The process involves blending shallots, lentils, walnuts, and mushrooms.
In the future, lab-grown foie gras could also be available. Japanese cultured meat company IntegriCulture Inc—which grows meat from animal cells—is working on a cell-based alternative. Co-founder and CEO Yuki Hanyu said in 2019 that restaurants could serve the product by 2021. It could be on the consumer market by 2023.
French startup Suprême is also working on lab-grown version. The company is hoping to launch its final product in 2022 or 2023.
According to DeRose, people are beginning to change their opinion of this controversial food.
“I think that people were aware of the cruelty of foie gras for a long time,” he explained. “The force-feeding was part of the allure; consuming foie gras was a subversive act. People who consumed it were mindful of the costs in terms of animal suffering.”
He added: “over the past forty years or so, the perception of foie gras has evolved along with a general understanding of how farmed animals of all kinds endure pain and suffering in order to be processed into food. The hard work of animal rights organizations has managed to shift many people’s perceptions on this matter, but we still have a long way to go.”