Foie gras: The ethical debate

26 July 2007 by
Foie gras: The ethical debate

As the debate over the ethics of foie gras rages on, Tom Vaughan talks to restaurateur who might have found a way to appease both sides

In the depths of the Spanish countryside, 50 miles north of Seville, a gaggle of 300 geese waddle and shuffle around their 30-acre farm, searching for acorns, lupins, figs - whatever they can scoff to swell their livers to six or seven times their normal size. Across the Pyrenees in France, free-range geese toddle around their own farms, ignorant of the tubes soon to be shoved down their throats to force-feed them grain in their last two weeks of life. Elsewhere still, caged French geese with scarred gullets gulp down mushed-up grain from metal tubes so their livers might swell as large as possible.

Meanwhile, over the Channel in Britain, animal rights groups and appalled individuals continue to protest against all forms of foie gras. Not sitting comfortably with the process behind foie gras himself, John Hudgell, proprietor of Cambridge restaurant Alimentum, had heard a rumour about an ethically reared foie gras from Spain that had won the Coup de Coeur, a prestigious award for compassion from the Paris International Food Salon.

With Alimentum having opened earlier this month, sporting a sustainable and ethical ethos, Hudgell was as enthused as any by the news. "It's right in line with what we're trying to do here," he says. "We're trying to ensure that everything we sell is ethically sourced, so finding an opportunity to sell foie gras was a godsend."

But the logistics weren't that simple. The farmer behind the foie gras, Eduardo de Sousa, is based in the heart of the Spanish countryside with no internet site or phone number, so getting hold of him proved difficult. With the help of the Spanish Embassy, Hudgell and his head chef Anton Escalera managed to track down de Sousa and arrange a visit to his farm, Pateria de Sousa, earlier this month.

With an interpreter in tow, they were amazed at what they found. The geese are free to roam de Sousa's 30-acre farm and are so tame that, on seeing the farmer, they waddle over en masse to feed on the figs and acorns in his hand.

Most production of foie gras involves some form of force-feeding. At worst, this is done via the mechanical horrors of gavage, the process of pumping grain down a goose or duck's throat via a metal tube at best, via hand-feeding and throat massage.

However, the de Sousas have, over the years, exploited the migratory patterns of geese to swell their livers to foie gras volume, although they swell to only seven times the size, as opposed to 10 times achieved by more intensive farmers. When the cold weather sets in, the birds' natural instinct is to feed much more than usual to fuel their flight south. During this time, the de Sousas leave figs, lupins, acorns and olives around the farm in large quantities and the birds proceed to gorge on them for 14 to 15 days. By the time their bellies are touching the ground, the livers are large enough.

The birds are then rounded up and put to sleep by gas, during which time de Sousa puts a hole in their throat to kill them. This method of slaughter, says Hudgell, is reflective of the process as a whole. "It sums up the immense respect he has for his geese," he says.

Press coverage

Most of his 2,300 geese are outsourced and brought back to feed up, with more than 2,000 slaughtered every year. Many of the livers are pasteurised to preserve them and the majority go into parfaits.

Pateria de Sousa has been producing foie gras since 1812, despite receiving press coverage only since the Coup de Coeur at the start of the year, culminating in a visit from Janet Street-Porter on Gordon Ramsay's TV programme The F Word. Over the years the farm has supplied mainly local shops and delicatessens, but international interest has been aroused by the award of the Coup de Coeur, which de Sousa won after beating off competition from 10,000 entrants. According to Hudgell, Fortnum & Mason and Harrods have both shown interest in de Sousa's parfaits, although Hudgell has set up Alimentum as the first UK restaurant customer, with 30kg arriving by road every month at €16 (£10.80) per 100g.

Although it's expensive compared with £1.75 per 100g for the cheapest, intensively reared foie gras, it's not just the ethical element that appeals to Hudgell - it's also the taste. That said, when Street-Porter visited the farm and returned with a foie gras liver for Ramsay to taste on The F Word, he promised that if it tasted better than his usual foie gras, he'd change supplier to de Sousa. Predictably, though, he came out in favour of continuity, claiming his usual foie gras was the better product.

Hudgell disagrees. "How Gordon Ramsay can say his foie gras tastes better I don't know. Those geese are fed on grain, but think of the flavours that de Sousa's are fed on - figs, olives, acorns. It results in a much better end product."

And while Alimentum is the only UK restaurant to import the product, Hudgell expects others will follow suit. "I think that when chefs realise there's a fully ethical alternative out there they'll look at foie gras in a different light and appreciate that you can have it on your menu without the guilt," he says.

International campaign

It's this guilt over the practices involved in foie gras production that has, in the past few years, grown into an international campaign by animal rights activists and concerned individuals to have it banned on animal welfare grounds. In Chicago last year the city council banned the sale of the product from 2012 the sale or production of foie gras in California will be illegal, and Israel has imposed a production ban.

The EU went as far as commissioning a report by the Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Welfare in 1998 into the welfare aspects surrounding foie gras production and the Council of Europe recommended in 1999 that only countries where the practice was already under way should be allowed to continue supplying the delicacy. Since 1997 the number of EU countries producing foie gras has halved it remains legal in only five - Belgium, Bulgaria, Spain, France and Hungary.

Individual restaurateurs and shops have also taken a stand. US chef Charlie Trotter decided to halt the sale of it in his eponymous Chicago restaurant 18 months before the city-wide ban, Wolfgang Puck, the Austrian-American owner of 15 restaurants worldwide, including Spago in Beverly Hills, banned the product from all his restaurants earlier this year, and in England, department store House of Fraser and its Edinburgh store Jenners have joined Tesco, Sainsbury's, Marks & Spencer and, most recently, cash and carry chain Makro in removing foie gras from its shelves.

Indeed, the anti-foie gras move has taken hold in this country. In York earlier this year, councillor Paul Blanchard proposed a motion that the city council be opposed to the sale of foie gras, and he continues to campaign for its ban. "I've always been opposed to foie gras on the basis of its intolerable cruelty," he says. "Foie gras isn't a mainstay of anyone's diet, it's a delicacy, a luxury, and if we're civilised people we should ban it."

There are, of course, many other farming practices carried out at the expense of the animal's welfare. Rick Stein famously spoke out against battery chickens on Radio 4 in 2005, and the farming practice is now due to be outlawed by the EU from 2012 (see page 31). Intensive pig farming, battery cows and broiler chickens are all other examples of this. And while Blanchard says he campaigns against all these practices, he's adamant that the very nature of foie gras as a luxury item means it would be easy to ban.

Legal problems

But so far the campaign for a ban on the sale of foie gras in the UK has met with legal problems, with claims that it would contravene EU law on the free import of goods. This prompted former environment minister Ben Bradshaw to urge people to boycott foie gras, Blanchard, however, has taken direct consultation from barristers specialising in this field, and has made representations to local Labour MP Hilary Benn, claiming that under EU treaties and World Trade Orgainsation rules it's only the importation that can't be banned, not the actual sale. Asked whether the decision to eat foie gras should be a matter of personal choice, Blanchard is obstinate: "Animal torture should not be a matter of personal choice," he says.

While a ban in the UK seems a long way away, campaigners have managed to persuade many restaurateurs to remove it from their menus. Rupert Rowley, head chef at Fischer's Baslow Hall in Derbyshire, changed his policy on foie gras as a result of campaigners. "We knew there were a lot of protests over the sale of foie gras at restaurants around Sheffield, so we took a long look at the foie gras we were using," he says. The restaurant took steps to ensure the livers sourced were as close to best-practice farming as possible. And now only free-range, artisan foie gras is on the menu, which makes minimal use of force-feeding when rearing the birds.

While foie gras is a favourite ingredient - particularly in French cuisine - Blanchard argues that many chefs are ignorant of the horrors the birds go through during its production. Daniel Galmiche, head chef at Cliveden in Taplow, Berkshire, certainly knows more than most of his peers. Galmiche grew up on his grandparents' foie gras farm in France, and is fully aware of what the product entails. As a result he disregards factory-fed foie gras in favour of artisan suppliers, and wouldn't order foie gras from a restaurant if he was unsure of its origins. "If you don't respect the produce and the animal you shouldn't be a chef in the first place," he says.

Artisan suppliers

Fellow chef Pascal Aussignac of London restaurant Club Gascon grew up in Gascony, famous for its foie gras production. He, too, uses only artisan suppliers, and is a strong critic of chefs who use intensively farmed foie gras.

In intensive farms, geese are locked in small cages and subjected to gavage. It takes only nine days of intensive farming to get the livers to the required size, as opposed to the 21 days on an artisan farm. The problem, says Aussignac, lies with the premium charged by the artisan farmers, who charge about £25 per kg compared with the £17 that intensive farmers can charge. "The problem comes from chefs themselves - if they spent a little more they'd be cutting off the supply to the really unethical producers," he says.

While intensive farmers will subject their birds to a lifetime of misery, the only pain a free-range bird will go through is the two days at the start of the force-feeding, before the body adapts to the quantity of food and the birds become almost addicted to it. But for Blanchard and other campaigners, even this is unacceptable. "I just can't understand someone who would suggest that two days of torture is a justifiable by-product for a luxury food," he says.

Not all chefs, however, are so greatly concerned over foie gras. Adam Byatt, chef-proprietor at Trinity in Clapham, London, doesn't intend to stop selling foie gras. "It's one of those ingredients that's synonymous with luxury. There's a market demand so we supply it," he says, simply. However, he buys in whole foie gras ducks and butchers them with his team so they have a full understanding of the ingredient. But in response to the calls for a ban, he says there are more important matters to be addressed. "I don't worry too much about the ethical factor. I worry about global warming, I worry about interest rates, I worry about people starving in Africa - but I don't worry too much about ducks," he says.

As both sides wade into the debate, there's growing uncertainty in Chicago over whether the ban on foie gras will last. There's talk of a repeal, with Mayor Richard M Daly recently dubbing it "the silliest ordinance the city council has ever passed".

The future of foie gras in this country remains unclear. While a ban seems unlikely for legal reasons alone, the growing awareness of foie gras production methods and increasingly vocal opposition to its sale means that many restaurateurs are reconsidering their use and sourcing of it.

Although the production methods used by de Sousa might potentially appease both sides, he has barely enough birds to supply his current demand, let alone a whole country's.

With the debate not likely to calm down any time soon, and as more chefs become embroiled in the argument, possibly the wisest observation comes from food writer and Caterer contributor Michael Raffael. "The only thing chefs and individuals can do is take a stand against worst practice," he says. "If someone is exploiting market forces to put something on the market cheaper at the expense of the animals' welfare, then they should be ignored."

Want to find out more?

What people say…

Environment minister Ben Bradshaw:

"Even if Community law obstacles to introducing a restriction could be overcome, which is unlikely, the World Trade Organisation rules don't allow us to ban imports on the grounds of the welfare standards applying in third countries. Ultimately, the most effective action that can be taken is for individuals not to buy foie gras if they dislike the way it's produced."

Pascal Aussignac, chef-proprietor, Club Gascon:

"There's no need for the mechanical horrors of gavage unless you want to turn foie gras into an industrial process."

Sir Paul McCartney, urging California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to ban foie gras:

"There's clearly nothing humane about mechanically inducing disease in a bird by forcing a pipe down its throat and making it consume such an abnormal quantity of food that its liver expands many times its normal size."

Rick Stein, criticising battery-hen farming methods on BBC Radio 4:

"I'm not saying we should fail to disapprove about what the French are doing with their geese and ducks, but maybe we should start not turning a blind eye to what goes on in our own farms. There are a lot of intensive farming practices in this country, and in France, of course, that are more cruel than that."

Adam Byatt, chef-proprietor of Trinity, Clapham:

"I don't worry too much about the ethical factor. I worry about global warming, I worry about interest rates, I worry about people starving in Africa - but I don't worry too much about ducks."

Ethical v artisan

Food writer Michael Raffael compares Eduardo de Sousa's ethical foie gras parfait with an artisan French supplier's parfait:

Cambridge restaurant Alimentum has flagged its "foie gras parfait with chutney of fresh figs and crispy olive toast" as coming from ethically reared Spanish grey geese. The issue for its customers will be: "How does it taste?"

Well, it comes out of a 500g tin, processed by Pateria de Sousa, based in Extremadura in southern Spain, so it's a sterilised product. It's not directly comparable to fresh, whole lobes of foie gras. At Alimentum, chef Anton Escalera marinates it with port, seasons, reforms, blanches and chills it to give it a distinctive touch. The result on the plate is a compact, pleasant-tasting slice of goose liver pâté. Its smooth, melting texture matches equivalent French foie gras products. If anything, it's a tad more meaty.

French producers and manufacturers have challenged Pateria de Sousa's right to use the term "foie gras". But this branded product looks and eats well. It doesn't depend on the highly questionable methods of industrial farming as theirs often does.

It does have its limitations, though. This isn't on a par with the finest fresh or vacuum-packed artisan foie gras, whether from geese or ducks. The foie gras that Pascal Aussignac buys for his Club Gascon, for instance, has much more finesse. The richness, texture and, essentially, the subtlety of flavour are on a higher level.

Alimentum is negotiating to order whole lobes from its Spanish supplier. It may have to wait until winter when the geese fatten themselves to find out whether nature can deliver a foie gras to rival careful nurture.

Welfare concerns over other foods

Battery chickens

Under EU law, each hen can be allotted floor space of 550sq cm - less than an A4 sheet of paper. Osteoporosis and fractured bones are common because the high rate of egg production depletes the hens' calcium reserves. The wire floor causes problems for hens' feet as their claws can become twisted around the mesh, preventing them from reaching food and water. Frustration, boredom and close proximity can lead hens to attack their cage mates, resulting in cannibalism. In an attempt to prevent this, hens are often debeaked: a third of the beak is removed with a red-hot blade.

Broiler chickens

Broiler chickens (chickens reared for meat) are selectively bred to grow at a significantly faster rate than is natural, reaching slaughter weight by 40-42 days. If they were allowed to live longer, their health problems would cause many to die at about 18 weeks. About 46 billion are reared around the world every year, most of them in windowless sheds with as many as 19 to every square metre. Because of the high mortality rate, breeder chickens are starved, with as little as 25-50% of what they would eat, given access to food, to slow their growth rate.

Frogs' legs

The main supplier of frogs' legs to Europe is Indonesia, where villagers collect frogs from swamps. Bundled together in a sack, they're taken for slaughter at a local cutting centre, where they're held down in groups and sliced in half through the belly while fully conscious. After the top halves are discarded on a pile, they can take up to an hour to die.

Battery Cows

As dairy farmers struggle to meet demand for increasingly cheaper milk, they often intensify farming to produce higher milk yields. In the most intensive zero-grazing systems, cows are often confined to cubicles that are too small for them to stand and lie comfortably. This can result in cows standing with their hind feet in their own excrement, sometimes causing painful foot infections.

Intensive pig farming

Pregnant sows can be held for weeks at a time in small farrowing crates - narrow metal cages only inches wider than the animal. The sows are unable to turn and can only stand up, lie down or suckle their piglets once they're born. The crates are designed to maximise productivity, and ultimately drive down the cost of meat.

Source: Compassion in World Farming,

The Caterer Breakfast Briefing Email

Start the working day with The Caterer’s free breakfast briefing email

Sign Up and manage your preferences below

Check mark icon
Thank you

You have successfully signed up for the Caterer Breakfast Briefing Email and will hear from us soon!

Jacobs Media is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

The highest official awards for UK businesses since being established by royal warrant in 1965. Read more.


Ad Blocker detected

We have noticed you are using an adblocker and – although we support freedom of choice – we would like to ask you to enable ads on our site. They are an important revenue source which supports free access of our website's content, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.

trade tracker pixel tracking