Has California's Foie Gras Ban Gone Too Far?

Lovers of the fatty liver pâté are outraged. But it's worth looking more deeply at the new law against force-feeding waterfowl.

Project Noah

On July 1, it became official: foie gras is now illegal in California. This seems drastic for a food with roots dating back to ancient Egypt and the Jewish diaspora, and passions are running high on both sides of the debate surrounding the ban.

Radio talk shows have hosted on-air debates, food events have celebrated the virtues of foie gras, chefs dressed in whites have marched on Sacramento. In the Atlantic magazine, Ed Leibowitz described a protest "Foie for All" menu served by Santa Monica chef Josiah Citrin in the weeks leading up to the ban. People I like and respect were among those who revolted; other people I like and respect lobbied for the law. I wanted to learn the real story behind foie gras and form my own opinion.

I contacted farmers, chefs, food distributors, and animal welfare activists, each with some direct connection to the production, preparation, or sale of foie gras. The food's staunchest critics -- animal activists -- were eager to speak to me, and happily spoke on the record. Its defenders, on the other hand, were hesitant to be interviewed at all, and did not want to their statements attributed. Their reluctance seemed to originate from a sense that the general public -- in California, at least -- is increasingly skeptical about and even hostile toward foie gras.

Speaking with about a dozen people, and reading extensively on the topic, revealed to me more complexity and nuance than advocates of either side generally acknowledge. First, some important background facts and definitions.

In the United States, very few people eat foie gras at all, and those who do don't eat much: Its retail cost is roughly $65 per pound; per capita consumption is 0.003 pounds per person annually. The vast majority of the world's foie gras is produced by and consumed in just two countries: France and Hungary.

The term foie gras means "fat liver" (or "fatty liver") in French, and specifically relates to fattened livers of geese and ducks. (In Europe, geese were raised for this purpose until the 1950s, but now it's mostly ducks; in the Unites States, it's only ducks). As famed food chemist Harold McGee has explained, "It's a kind of living pate," the result of "constant overnourishment" that causes the liver to grow to 10 times its normal size. (A European Commission document states that the average goose liver weighs 76 grams, while a force-fed goose's liver weighs 982 grams). The liver's fat content typically reaches 50 to 65 percent.

This raises concerns about the wastefulness of vastly overfeeding animals. Yet the far more common objection to foie gras relates to the manner in which the fowl are fed and handled in the final phase of their lives. As McGee explains, and everyone I spoke to for this article affirms, the "overnourishment" is done through force-feeding in the final weeks of the birds' lives -- a process that is usually called by the French name, gavage.

The birds are fed whole or ground corn, often mixed with fat. Feed is forced into the bird's body using a funnel fitted with a long tube consisting of an auger or pneumatic system that forces the corn directly into the esophagus. A handler grabs the neck of the bird, thrusts the 20 to 30 cm tube down the bird's throat, then pumps in the feed. This is done twice a day with ducks and three times a day with geese, for a period of between 12 to 21 days. During this period, the birds are continuously kept in small pens or cages, and sometimes continuously kept in darkness.

Those who consider foie gras acceptable -- usually, in my experience, people who have tasted it themselves, and relish the eating experience -- believe that force-feeding can be done carefully, without causing injury or fear to the birds. Animal activists respond that gavage cannot be done humanely.

The conditions in which the geese and ducks are kept before the gavage phase vary widely. Some European operations are known to keep their animals confined in intensely crowded conditions throughout their lives. By contrast, the people I spoke with who have visited U.S. operations agreed that the ducks were provided very good living conditions for most of their lives. I viewed both private and publically available photos and videos from farms raising ducks for foie gras in California and New York, which show the birds, prior to the fattening stage, in idyllic, pastoral conditions.

The most thorough and balanced treatment I found about foie gras was a 93-page report by the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Welfare. The report is at once exonerating and damning. It determined that the gut capacity of ducks and geese "is sufficient for the largest amounts fed during the force-feeding period." It found that the physical changes brought on by force-feeding, including hypertrophied livers, "were totally reversible within 4 weeks." And it found that some of the classic physiological measures of stress failed to show evidence of unusual stress in force fed birds.

On the other hand, members of the committee -- who, as part of their review, personally visited numerous foie gras operations -- also observed that "birds with expanded livers had difficulty in standing and their natural gait and ability to walk were severely impaired." The report determined that "ducks at the end of the force-feeding period can have serious injuries to the esophagus." It found substantially higher mortality in ducks and geese raised for foie gras compared to those raised for meat. And, overall, the report concluded that "force-feeding, as currently practiced, is detrimental to the welfare of the birds."

Although California's law is, at this time, an outlier in the United States -- the city of Chicago passed, then later rescinded, an ordinance against the sale of foie gras -- it is by no means the first to adopt such a ban. Norway started it in 1974, passing a law against force-feeding animals. (This is what the California law does: it bans the force-feeding of fowl.) In the years following, similar statutes were adopted by Denmark, Germany, the Czech Republic, Finland, Poland, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Israel.

The Israeli ban struck me as particularly significant. The Jewish people are believed to have been involved in the earliest creation of foie gras, as slaves in ancient Egypt, and are said to have carried the knowledge and tradition to Europe. The modern state of Israel was once among the world's leading foie gras producers.

In the United States, the prestigious Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production issued final recommendations that included the following: "Phase out the most intensive and inhumane production practices within a decade to reduce risks ... to public health and improve animal well-being; these practices include ... forced feeding of fowl to produce foie gras."

Knowing what I now know, I would not want to buy or eat foie gras myself, nor would I want to be involved in its production. To me, ethical justifications for eating fish, meat, and dairy are strong. Those foods provide our bodies essential nutrients that are virtually impossible to glean from foods other than those derived from animals. Moreover, I consider humans part of the diverse, complicated, and interconnected web of plants and animals, predators, and prey, whose bodies feed one another then return to the earth. But none of those rationales excuses the brutalities of modern industrial animal production. Nor can any of them justify force-feeding ducks and geese in foie gras production.

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.