As more and more businesses cede to campaigners' pressure and drop foie gras, is the game nearly up for the buttery delicacy? And, if not, should chefs nevertheless be questioning their consciences for using it? Tom Vaughan reports
Last year, as Europe teetered on the edge of financial Armageddon, a small but much-covered showdown took place in Paris.
The attendees were Pierre Lellouche, France's external trade minister, and German ambassador Reinhard Schäfers. The hot topic? It wasn't the gathering Eurozone crisis, the Merkel-Sarkozy relationship or the civil war in Libya. No, the issue that threatened to cause a diplomatic stink was the banning of foie gras at a Cologne food fair; a move that threatened "global repercussions", warned the fuming Lellouche.
As the age of consumerism bids to haul itself from the rocks, the Arab world grasps at self-determination and the nuclear spectre looms once again from Iran, it seems there's still space for the long-running foie gras debate.
This year, things hot up further still. As of 1 July, a ban on foie gras will pass into law in California, three years after a similar prohibition in Chicago was repealed, with the then mayor labelling it the "silliest law" the city council had ever passed.
Meanwhile, in the UK, the anti-foie gras bandwagon rolls on, as the likes of former James Bond actor Roger Moore and actress Kate Winslet back a campaign to have it removed from all major retailers, with London department store Fortnum & Mason the most immediate target, following success at the likes of Selfridges and Harvey Nichols.
Some UK restaurants have already had their hand forced on the issue. In recent years, the likes of 39 Steps in Styal, Cheshire, Bearlands in Ruscombe Green, Gloucester, and, most famously, Midsummer House in Cambridge - which was vandalised by the Animal Liberation front for using foie gras - have all removed the ingredient from their menus.
Others, such as former restaurant Minibar in Bath, have refused to bow to activist pressure. Despite four consecutive nights of demonstrations, chef and co-owner Alex Grant dug his heels in on the issue: "They were standing on the door stopping customers coming in and a few people said they had been swearing at them and telling them to go to another restaurant," he told the Bath Chronicle at the time. "Foie gras is not as cruel as it used to be, it is not the same as it was 50 years ago. The ducks are free range, they have a good life." (For more chefs' views, see below.)
Despite the horrific images of factory farming used by animal rights campaigners, there are indeed foie gras farms out there that value the welfare of their ducks very highly.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, in his exhaustive 2004 cookbook Meat, recalls having his opinion on foie gras changed by a visit to an artisan supplier in south-west France: "After observing it first hand, I don't think the force-feeding of ducks and geese, when it is done by a skilled hand, is excessively cruel. They actually queue up for their turn and, when it's over, waddle off no more than a little ruffled by their experience."
US journalist J Kenji López-Alt, managing editor of website Serious Eats, also admits that his opinion on the issue was altered after a visit to a farm. LaBelle in Sullivan County, New York, one of just three foie gras producers in the USA, uses flexible plastic tubes and larger force-feeding pens to improve birds' living and feeding conditions. "What I saw was a large farm, run efficiently and cleanly, with care taken to ensure the comfort and cleanliness of the animals," he says. "It was no more shocking or disturbing than any other farm I've been to, and certainly much cleaner than some. The feeding itself was pretty anticlimactic. Pens of ducks lined up, waiting for food. Most would waddle up to the feeder and passively allow them to put the soft tube down their throat to deliver the feed."
However, there are also some farms that are much less concerned with birds' welfare. A 1998 report into foie gras production by the EU's Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare widely condemned the use of individual cages - which don't even allow birds to stretch their wings - during the force-feeding process. As of 2003, 87% of foie gras production from ducks used such cages. Elsewhere in the report there is anecdotal evidence of the damage caused by metal tubes to the birds' esophagi, plus criticism of the mechanised feeding systems used to speed up the gavage process, the high mortality rate and cramped living conditions. With a reported 90% of foie gras in the UK coming from industrialised farms, chefs certainly have reason to be wary of the ingredient's provenance.
Politically, however, many refuse to draw any distinction between good and bad practice when it comes to foie gras. As far as animal rights campaigners are concerned, all foie gras is torture. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is at the forefront of the campaign to have UK businesses stop selling the product: "Any living being has the same five senses, and a duck or goose will experience pain and fear just as a human will," explains special campaigns co-ordinator at PETA Abi Izzard. "Granted, some birds used for foie gras will spend much of their time free range, but that doesn't justify the fact that they are having tubes shoved down their throats to produce fatty liver so someone can enjoy eating it for a few brief moments."
While the EU report concluded that "force feeding, as currently practised, is detrimental to the welfare of the birds", with no distinction between farming standards, some French scientists have gone into radical opposition to the report's findings. Led by director of research Dr Daniel Guémené, the National Institute of Agronomic Research (INRA), in France, released a 2006 paper, intended to debunk a lot of the mythology around foie gras production, including the assumption that the gavage causes the birds stress (see page 41).
Nothing, though, is clear-cut when it comes to foie gras. While Guémené was motivated by the anecdotal and unscientific qualities of the EU report, campaigners have sought to discredit his findings by saying that much of the research was funded by the foie gras industry. It is an accusation that, when contacted for this article, Guémené strenuously denied: "We had only a partial financial support from the industry and only during the very initial studies, at a time when my hypothesis was that force-feeding would induce stress [among the birds]. Industry members were, in fact, quite reluctant, as I told them that whatever the results might be, I would still publish them. Instead, we got support from our institute and from the ministry of agriculture."
Whatever the ethical issue, there is no likelihood of foie gras being banned in the UK any time soon. Despite production being illegal here, EU free trade laws mean a country-wide ban on the sale of foie gras would be impossible. Only an EU-wide ban would prevent its sale. Even this, though, is unlikely. As well as leaving half of France up in arms, it would also, the Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare freely admits, see production move to countries outside the EU, where welfare standards would be much less desirable.
However, don't expect any respite on the matter from animal rights campaigners. "It speaks volumes that it is illegal to produce foie gras in this country on cruelty grounds, and yet you can still import it," Izzard says. "Places are just exploiting this loophole. Obviously we will keep fighting against foie gras until places like Fortnum & Mason and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay stop selling it."
If a chef or restaurateur can dodge the protests of the animal rights brigade, he or she has only their own conscience to answer on the issue of foie gras. Fearnley-Whittingstall describes his own conclusions in Meat: "The real ethical problem with foie gras, in my view, is not the traditional force-feeding of birds by hand but, as ever, the inevitable industrialization of the process."
With any form of ban a long way off, the issue will continue to rage. Perhaps, one day, animal rights campaigners will win out and foie gras will be seen as a hideous anachronism. Perhaps we'll just see a few major businesses wash their hands of the hassle and drop the product. Whatever happens, it's clear the foie gras debate will be resolved only one person at a time. With the facts to hand, only you can decide. "As with everything, there is good practice and bad practice," says Adam Simmonds, head chef at Danesfield House in Marlow. "You have to weigh it up and say 'I stand by doing it properly, and if it's not done properly I won't cook with it'."
Conflicting reports on foie gras production... key findings
1 Welfare Aspects of the Production of Foie Gras in Ducks and Geese, by the EU Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare, 1998
Conclusion: Force feeding, as currently practised, is detrimental to the welfare of the birds.
● The use of small individual cages for housing these birds should not be permitted. Birds should be kept in social groups and be provided with adequate water and light sufficient for normal behaviour.
● Members of the committee observed that, prior to force feeding, the ducks and geese show avoidance behaviour indicating aversion for the person who feeds them and the feeding procedure. However, there is no conclusive scientific evidence as to the aversive nature of the force feeding process.
● The mortality rate in force-fed birds varies from 2% to 4% in the two-week force-feeding period, compared with around 0.2% in non-force-fed ducks.
● Hypertrophied livers can cause discomfort in a variety of other species. Hence it may be that some discomfort results directly from the hypertrophied liver in force-fed ducks and geese. It appears that this has not been investigated.
● During the force-feeding period, liver function is impaired. Some pathologists consider this level of steatosis to be pathological but others do not.
2 Force Feeding: An Examination of Available Scientific Evidence, by the National Institute of Agronomic Research, 2006
Conclusion: [The EU Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare's conclusion], while clearly taken for granted by opponents of foie gras, was based on the very limited amount of scientific evidence available at the time and is not supported by the very extensive scientific experimentation done in the intervening years.
● Among ducks kept in group pens, clinical study showed no significant increase in stress levels after the first instance of force feeding.
● Although there is need for further scientific investigations, the data provided does not demonstrate the presence of major pain-induced signs in the nervous system of force-fed mule ducks.
● Force-fed ducks or geese do not develop any avoidance behaviour towards the force-feeder and the force-feeding context.
● Ducks and geese, like many other bird species, are able to swallow large preys. Consequently, the inside diameter of the upper part of the esophagus... is comparatively larger than in mammals and not circled by cartilaginous rings, explaining the capacity to swallow large objects.
● Examination of foie gras demonstrates the absence of disease... steatosis in foie gras is fully reversible. After leaving the animal free to feed... the liver returns to its initial composition within two weeks.
● Through our scientific studies, we have observed that a single mule duck can ingest, without any physical constraint, up to 500g in a single meal and over 750g of food during a day. Geese can also eat as much as 3kg of carrots a day. The maximum quantities of food provided toward the end of the force-feeding period never exceed 1kg daily or 500g per meal.
Foie gras... in a nutshell
To produce foie gras, ducks or geese are force-fed to enlarge the liver and give it a buttery, rich flavour. It is known to have been produced as far back as 2500BC. France is the biggest producer, accounting for almost 80% of worldwide foie gras production.
The production methods behind foie gras sees birds force-fed in the two to three weeks before slaughter by use of a "gavage", traditionally a long metal tube that is inserted down their esophagus and used to quickly inject a large amount of feed. This process remains highly controversial.
Foie gras ducks are a cross between the tropical muscovy and the Chinese Pekin, a domesticated descendent of wild mallards. While producers claim that they exploit the Pekin duck's natural migratory instincts, whereby they will gorge to store energy in their liver, campaigners argue that it is too domesticated to still have such instincts.
FOIE GRAS... INDUSTRY REACTIONS
For some chefs, using foie gras has proved more hassle than it is worth. Five years ago, Tony Tobin, chef-patron of the Dining Room in Reigate, was quick to react when a small storm threatened to gather over the issue. "We had this lady who would write to me with pictures of the ducks and it started to get into the local press," he explains. "I'm in a little town so it's important that I keep my locals happy - they are my customers. Sometimes it is better to just try and appease."
Midsummer House in Cambridge is perhaps the most famous example of the foie gras debate turning nasty. The restaurant experienced six months of protests from the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), culminating in graffiti amounting to £12,000 in damage. However, while chef-patron Daniel Clifford resents the way the ALF went about its protest, he also says dropping foie gras from his menu was an eye-opener.
"I look back at it and think it was the best thing that ever happened to me as a cook," he says. "It was an arrogance. I thought I had to use it and that people expected it, but it's not the case. Dropping it from the menu opened my eyes to so many other ingredients."
Does he miss it? "I still go to France and have a slice, and yes I miss the smell of it cooking - but anyone can cook with luxury ingredients."
At restaurant Alimentum in Cambridge, chef-patron Mark Poynton, formerly of Midsummer House, also no longer uses foie gras. "I don't want the same hassle Daniel had," he says. "We'd be easy to target and it is more hassle than it is worth."
However, Poynton has no objections in ordering a foie gras dish when eating out. "I love it. I have objections to the bad farming of it but not every farm is like that. If you can get good foie gras from a good producer, why feel guilty?"
And if chefs want to find out if their supplier is a good producer? "Easy, ask the name of the farm from your supplier, if they say they're not sure then it's probably not a reputable source. Then pick up the phone and speak to the farm, check it out online."
Alyn Williams, chef-patron of his eponymous restaurant at the Westbury hotel in London, soothed his own conscience by doing just that, and thoroughly investigated supplier Ernest Soulard. "I did have an issue with it at one point, and wondered if it was ethical," he says. "I asked to see my supplier, Ernest Soulard, and they came over from France. We talked for ages about what the duck goes through, about the free-range conditions they live in and so on. What they do is not that different from other farming. I have no concerns that the bird is being mistreated. If I thought the process was barbaric, I wouldn't sell it."
In Marlow, Adam Simmonds, executive chef at Danesfield House, also thoroughly investigated the provenance of his foie gras, which comes from supplier Rougis in France. "You have to make sure it comes from a reputable source," he says. "Our suppliers give us all the information we want, from how they are reared to how they are fed and slaughtered. If you're not happy, don't use it."