For a small dish that is only available at specialty restaurants, foie gras has proved to be quite a divisive topic. The French delicacy is made from the fattened liver of a duck or goose, and has historically been a mainstay in French cuisine; it is, however, the product of potentially inhumane force feeding practices that are centuries old.
Costing around $80 per pound, foie gras is a luxurious ingredient typically only found in high-end restaurants. It is rare to find it in a common grocery store, as one usually has to go to boutique farms and vendors to purchase it. Foie gras is a staple ingredient that embodies France’s iconic gastronomic heritage. The delicate, buttery taste combined with the silky texture epitomizes France’s rich cooking techniques. It has a creamy, velvety texture that melts in the mouth, as well as offering intense bursts of rich umami. It is most commonly served as a pâté, pureed and spread on toast, seared, or cooked in a terrine.
The production of foie gras on a mass scale, as is done today, requires force feeding the birds so that their livers grow to be up to 10 times the normal size. The controversy of foie gras revolves around the practice known as gavage. This practice, often criticized as invasize, involves farmers force feeding the ducks or geese by sticking a long metal tube down their esophagus to transport a highly fatty corn-based feed to ensure their livers grow to a desirable size for foie gras. Animal rights activists view this practice as unethical and invasive, but it is important to note that these birds do not have a gag reflex, which allows for the force feeding to occur. Gavage dates back to the ancient Egyptians, ultimately spreading across the mediterranean to France in the 16th century. As a result of the controversy surrounding gavage, foie gras production is currently illegal in some countries around the world, including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, India, and Israel.
Animal rights activists have been expressing their concern over this for many years now. The harsh force feeding techniques used at duck farms were first documented by animal rights activists in California, in the United States. These activists shot pictures and videos of ducks clinging to life, as they were being force fed to the extent of being unable to walk or move due to their weight.
Lawmakers listened to the concerns raised, and banned the product from being farmed in California in 2012. Foie gras is not illegal to eat in California but laws force consumers to pursue the product from out of state vendors. The City Council of New York also voted to ban foie gras back in October of 2019, with the law coming into effect in 2022. However, this law only bans the act of gavage and permits the use of naturally harvested foie gras. These laws are a huge step forward for animal rights, as both New York City and California are home to many high-end restaurants where foie gras is served. Esteemed Michelin 7-star chef, Thomas Keller, uses foie gras in one of his Michelin 3-Star rated restaurants. Per Se, located in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, serves foie gras on its tasting menu, though this will be eradicated come 2022. His other Michelin 3-Star restaurant, The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., used to feature foie gras prominently on its tasting menus until the ban.
Although the aforementioned process of gavage is invasive and damaging to the bird’s health, some farmers, such as the Catskill Foie Gras Collective, engage in more humane practices to develop their foie gras. The ducks are allowed to roam cage-free and fed through smaller rubber tubes, as opposed to the traditional harsh metal tubes. The Catskill Foie Gras Collective is one of the main producers of foie gras for the New York City restaurant scene and are challenging the city’s ban over the item, claiming it to be unconstitutional. Esteemed Michelin 2-Star Chef David Chang spoke out against the city’s ban, siding with the Catskill Foie Gras Collective, tweeting: “Stupid, short sighted, and a misunderstanding of the situation.” This highlights the stark divide between the opinions of the animal rights activists and the chefs who use the product.
Many forbidden foods have gone in and out of fashion over the decades. To some people’s disappointment and others’ excitement, this French delicacy may have run its course, with the increasing spotlight and tension over the issue signaling a potential end to the production of this luxury item.