Some of the people I spoke with who defend foie gras noted that the force-feeding period is relatively short. This is undeniable. I also acknowledge that, overall, the lives of the ducks and geese raised for foie gras may be better than the lives of millions of pigs, chickens, turkeys, and dairy cows continually confined to metal buildings in the United States and elsewhere.
But I have spent the last decade making a public case against raising animals under those industrial conditions, so in my eyes, foie gras operations cannot be absolved by such comparisons. And I can see no legitimate argument that foie gras is essential, or even helpful, to human health, nor that its production resembles the functioning of a natural system. There is no situation in nature in which an animal would be confined and fed against its will. Simply put, I cannot see how foie gras has a place in a humane, ecologically based food system.
For those who feel they just can't live without fatty fowl livers, though, there is a kind of foie gras that nature provides. Hunters like Hank Shaw describe livers of certain fowl, in particular seasons, as enlarged and highly fatty as a result of natural gorging, something he refers to as "wild foie gras." These are the fatty livers that, thousands of years ago, first gave humans the idea of "overnourishing" fowl.
This has become a passion of chef Dan Barber (who's even done a TED talk on the topic). Barber confesses to an infatuation with the eating experience of foie gras, which he describes as "sweet" and "unctuous." But, he told me, he was uncomfortable with modern foie gras production's rapacious consumption of cereal grains. To give an idea of how much, the European Commission report puts the feed amount at up to 900 grams per bird per day.
Barber studied and toured foie gras operations of all types, and was especially taken with a foie gras he admires both for its quality and its production methods. It's from the farm of Eduardo Sousa, in southwestern Spain, where geese have been raised the same way for several generations. Sousa's geese are truly free range, having access, throughout their lives, to acres of acorns, olive trees, and fig trees. He eschews force-feeding. Because the life cycle of Sousa's geese parallels that of wild fowl, his geese naturally gorge themselves around the same time of year that wild geese do it in connection with migration. Paul Shapiro, who heads the Humane Society's farm animal division, says that foie gras produced in this way remains entirely legal in California, since the law bans only force-feeding.
It may not be feasible to replicate Sousa's farm, whose diverse foraging options and unique breed of geese have developed over the course of generations. But some farms are working to approximate his methods here in the United States. Perhaps such efforts will one day render force-feeding a relic of the past, even without legislation.