Let them eat foie!

Posted by on Oct 19, 2011 | 0 comments

The annual Montmartre wine festival, Fete des Vendanges, from October 5th to the 9th, was a joyous celebration of French gastronomic traditions. Parisians and Francophiles, high on life from all of the delicious food and wine, sang, danced, and toasted to their good fortune while looking down over the breathtakingly beautiful city. The smell of funky cheese, panfried foie gras, and sausages wafted through the air to the sounds of animated conversation, laughter, and live music. I was in heaven.

In theory, the festival is primarily a celebration of wine. However, as I strolled the various stalls I noticed that foie gras products, both cold and hot preparations, dominated the scene: terrines, pates, parfaits, mousses, roasted foie gras, sautéed foie gras, pan-seared foie gras. I watched slender and fashionable French women bite into lengthy sandwiches of pan-fried foie gras on crispy baguette, somehow succeeding in maintaining an air of effortless elegance as they enthusiastically devoured the refined carbohydrates and fattened goose-liver.

I decided I needed one too. I watched as the foie sandwich vendor plopped three foie gras cuts, browned and greasy from cooking in their own fat, onto a freshly toasted baguette. He then gently pressed the sandwich before handing over this ridiculously sinful creation. I closed my eyes and took a bite. Pressing the bread had caused the hot foie to practically melt like butter. The simplicity of the salty and fatty foie on the crunchy bread was mind-bogglingly delicious. I ate the sandwich slowly, savoring every decadent bite.

Unlike the French patrons, however, I couldn’t help but eat the foie gras with a big side of guilt. Not because of the calories–that I can handle–but because of the way that foie gras is made. I am always careful to buy free-range meat from humanely treated animals at the farmer’s market, and I turn my nose up at the notion of big feed-lot operations. Yet here I was, eating the livers of geese that had been force-fed corn with tubes down their esophagus. And yet, as a lover of traditional foods, how could I say no? Foie gras has been enjoyed in France since as far back as 2500 B.C. To try to figure out a way to live with this contradiction, I did some research.

Opponents of foie gras maintain that the gavage process (the force-feeding), which can inflame the esophagus when done improperly, is a cruel act that inflicts pain on the geese. There seems to be a uniform impression on anti-foie websites that in order for these geese to attain an “unnaturally” enlarged liver, all foie geese are kept in cages indoors as to prevent them from exercising and that the geese are constantly hooked up to feeding tubes. Foie gras has become the focal issue for animal welfare organizations, and in many countries they have succeeded in gaining enough support to ban the production and even the sale of foie gras. Its sale is illegal in Turkey and Israel, and it will be illegal in the state of California starting in 2012. In Chicago, it was illegal for several years until the law was overturned. In Germany, where the production is illegal but the sale is legal, foie gras has been banned from the annual Anuga food fair, straining relations between France and Germany.

most Americans are unaware of the conditions of animals in factory farms that they eat on a daily basis

There’s another side to the debate, however. Advocates of foie gras production emphasize that the animals do not show adverse effects or stress from the gavage, citing that geese typically form affectionate bonds with their human feeders rather than exhibiting fear. Foie gras geese are only force-fed for three seconds at a time, three times a day, and are never hooked up to tubes for long periods. Also, the premature mortality of these geese is only 3 percent, which suggests that the force-feeding does not cause severe negative health effects. What’s more, most foie geese actually seem to be treated much better than typical U.S. poultry, whose beaks are cut to prevent them from hurting themselves and are kept inside in tiny battery cages for their entire lives. Many foie gras operations’ geese are completely free-range and are brought indoors only for the brief feeding periods.

There are also alternatives to gavage, as it turns out. Although in France it’s not legally “foie gras” without the force-feeding, there are farmers such as Spanish goose farmer Eduardo Sousa who have found natural ways to attain the fatty liver. Instead, Mr. Sousa slaughters his geese in the fall, when the geese naturally eat more to prepare for migration. Avid game hunters often report capturing a couple of wild geese and ducks with naturally fattened livers every hunting season, further indicating that geese and certain breeds of duck are naturally disposed to this fatty-liver condition and that the gavage process is not doing anything so unnatural after all.

It’s not pretty, but from what I can tell, the French foie method is more humane than standard factory farm practices, which deserve equal–if not more–negative press than traditional foie gras production. I wish the French did not require gavage in fois gras production, and I also wish the fois obsession did not distract policy makers and the general public from a much larger problem, that most Americans are unaware of the conditions of animals in factory farms that they eat on a daily basis. Foie gras has become a scapegoat for all animal cruelty, even though many foie geese are free-range, foie represents a miniscule sector of the meat market, and farmers like Mr. Sousa have proven that fois gras can be achieved completely cruelty free.

For now, I have decided to file my foie gras sandwich experience in my happy memory bank and comfortably ignore that muddling cloud of guilt.

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