How foie gras is made

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I’ve posted a couple of times on foie gras – on both cooking and eating it. In one of the posts I quoted from an article in the International Herald Tribune that I read on the plane coming back from France. At the time this article wasn’t available for linking, but it is now. The journalist who wrote the piece had wondered about how gavage (the force-feeding of ducks and geese) was performed, so he hied himself to the Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York (where are own foie gras originated) to see for himself.

To animal welfare groups, the obscenity of force-feeding, known by the French word “gavage,” is self-evident. But Ginor and his partner Izzy Yanay, who runs the farm, accuse their critics of anthropomorphism and ignorance of duck anatomy and behavior. They say the practice is as benign as it is ancient, since waterfowl lack a gag reflex and have sturdy throats that easily tolerate grains, grit, stones and inflexible gavage tubes. To understand gavage, they say, is to accept it – as they insist poultry researchers have, after examining birds for signs of undue suffering during gavage and finding none.

I visited Hudson Valley Foie Gras recently, seeing gavage for the first time. I saw no pain or panic in Yanay’s ducks, no quacking or frenzied flapping in the cool, dimly lighted open pens where a young woman with a gavage funnel did her work. The birds submitted matter-of-factly to a 15-inch tube inserted down the throat for about three seconds, delivering about a cup of corn pellets.

The practice, done three times a day for a month, followed by slaughter, seemed neither particularly gentle nor particularly rough. It was unnerving to see the tube going down, and late-stage ducks waddling bulkily in their pens, but no more so than watching the epic gorging at an all-you-can-eat buffet, where morbid obesity is achieved voluntarily, with knife and fork.

Since the International Herald Tribune is owned by the New York Times, and since the New York Times never misses an opportunity to demonize anything that flies in the face of any of the liberal shibboleths – global warming, minimum wage, welfare reform, animal cruelty, etc. – I figured the report had to have been, if anything, hedged toward the anti-gavage. Considering that, it doesn’t look like all that bad a deal for the ducks, especially since it takes only a few seconds, not the all-day force feeding that many would have us believe they endure. In fact, the case could be made that – just as with humans – this carb overload is actually enjoyable.

MD blogged on the situation from her perspective.

But is making ducks obese humane, even if they enjoy it?

Certainly developing a fatty liver isn’t any better for the ducks in the long run than it is for people, but with one clear difference. For ducks, there isn’t a long run. Unlike ducks, people live long lives, potentially get sicker, may become less productive, and surely end up leading more costly lives in terms of the medical burden to themselves, their insurer, or society as the metabolic consequences of fatty liver, insulin resistance, diabetes, and obesity take their toll. For domestic fowl, raised for food, their end is going to be pretty much the same, regardless of the condition of their livers when the ax falls. If they enjoy a bit of corn-gluttony along the way, don’t seem to object to it, aren’t discomfited overmuch by it, then where’s the harm? For me, it’s a treasure and I can say without hesitation that no duck ever guzzled corn in vain whose liver wound up, seared, on my plate.

Also coming from the New York Times is Michael Pollan who has a great piece on how the politicians are creating a smoke screen by going after the only two (politically unconnected) producers of foie gras in this country instead of dealing with the giant factory farms (very politically connected; read: many campaign contributions), which deal much more misery to animals in their keep.

I’m not about to defend foie gras from the legions of righteous animal defenders. But do we have any reason to believe that feeding ducks and geese corn through tubes put down their throats is any more brutal than snipping off tails and beaks? I have not visited either of America’s foie gras farms, but I note that they have invited journalists to visit and see the operations for themselves. (Just try to wangle your way into an industrial chicken or hog facility.) Some of the journalists who have accepted that invitation report that the birds rush over to the farmers at feeding time. Our own visceral revulsion at the prospect of having tubes stuck down our throats may have to do with the fact we have a gag reflex; ducks and geese do not. I seriously doubt you’d ever see pigs rushing over to the man wielding the pliers.

To ban foie gras is symbolic politics at its worst, a way to create the appearance of doing something about a problem that politicians — and, let’s face it, most of us eaters — would rather not confront. So we close down a couple of foie gras farms. (Though the California law gives the farmers till 2012 to desist, which is odd: if force-feeding ducks is really so heinous, then how in good conscience can we abide the practice for six more years?) We brace ourselves for a major change in our eating habits: no more foie gras after 2012. What a sacrifice! And, after patting ourselves on the back for all we’ve done for the animals, we can now, with clear conscience, turn back to our breakfast, ordering bacon and eggs, sunny side up.

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. And if a picture is worth a thousand, then a video ought to be worth about ten million. One of my readers alerted me to the fact that the iconoclastic chef Anthony Bourdain had a segment on the making of foie gras on his television show. I looked on YouTube, and, sure enough, there it was buried deep within dozens and dozens of film clips showing the alleged cruelty of the procedure.

After you watch the Bourdain video, take a look at a few of the others. You’ll notice that they make the gavage process last much longer than it actually does – at least this was the case with the half dozen or so I watched. To paraphrase one of the cable news networks: I report, you decide.

(Hat tip to MAC for telling me about this video)

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8 thoughts on “How foie gras is made

  1. Perhaps I’ll be the only one to notice this- but as I already buy free-roaming animals from organic sources for this reason, it is glaringly obvious to me. Not once did I see any of these ducks outside- no sun on their bodies, no earth or water beneath their feet. This blog seems dedicated to helping folks eat the diet that is best for humans- but it is disgusting to do so at the cost of the animal’s natural diet and living conditions. Of course the ducks don’t look unhappy.. they’ve never known anything else. And certainly if it came down to a choice between my good health and theirs, I think people should come first. But it doesn’t. I can be perfectly healthy eating duck that led a healthy, free-roaming life. Fois gras is a luxury food- and it’s production is insidiously simple, and the fact that MD would suggest it is benign and then compare it other disgusting factory farming practices is extremely disappointing.

    Hi Laura–

    I don’t believe that the ducks are trapped inside from birth. I’ve seen many photos of this particular operation (Hudson Valley FG), and the ducks are running around outside. They are brought in for the gavage, which is when they were shown on the video. That doesn’t mean they are inside all the time. The video of me making Cafe Americano was shot in my kitchen, but that certainly doesn’t mean I spend all my time there. and I certainly don’t think that because I (and MD) don’t have a problem with ducks being raised humanely for fois gras that were advocates of factory farming. There is a world of difference between a factory farm and the Nudson Valley FG operation. Anyone who doesn’t believe that is obviously unaware of the difference between the two.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  2. Thanks for a great compilation of the viewpoints supporting foie gras production. The process has been studied by independent scientists and veterenarians and has been found to be humane. The process does not cause fear, anxiety, pain or disease in the animals, as many animal rights propagandists would have us all believe. To learn more about the animal welfare aspects of foie gras production, check out the links at http://legalfoiegras.blogspot.com/ .

    The video posted is a welcome breath of fresh air in the face of all the anti-foie films out there. Some call those other videos “animal snuff films,” and with good reason. It is clear that many have been overly edited and do not represent actual foie gras farming. To learn more about how these videos have been made recently and historically, check out http://www.furcommission.com/news/newsC7.htm .

    Hi Lizzie–

    Thanks for the links, especially the last one. It’s amazing to what cruel lengths anti-cruelty types will go to in an effort to spread their propaganda. Simply stunning.

    Best–

    MRE

  3. Dr. Mike,

    My apologies to MD- I confused the segment you posted from her blog with the one beneath it from Michael Pollan- “But do we have any reason to believe that feeding ducks and geese corn through tubes put down their throats is any more brutal than snipping off tails and beaks?” My point was that the fact that it’s no MORE brutal doesn’t mean it’s OK. The “two wrongs” argument, etc.

    I can’t help but wonder.. if this video was made to assuage the fears that animal lovers have about foie gras, wouldn’t it make sense to show their time outdoors on film? Most animal rights people consider this a very important part of an animal’s life. We saw everyone else out in the sunshine, just not the ducks.

    I love your blog, and thank you for the personal response. That’s something Dr. Joseph Mercola NEVER manages.

    -Laura

    Hi Laura–

    I’ll pass your apology on.

    I wondered why they didn’t show the ducks outdoors more in the video myself. They do on other stuff I’ve seen. Maybe it was a matter of time constraints.

    Cheers–
    MRE

  4. You really should check out some of Anthony Bourdain’s books. I have his “Les Halles Cook Book.” Just read the introduction section or two next time you’re in a bookstore to get some of the flavor for it. The language might be a bit strong for Mary-Dan, though. I’ve never seen the ‘F-bomb’ used so much in a cookbook! 😉

    He’s not a strict low-carb advocate by any means, but he’s a BIG supporter of how people ‘used’ to eat (As in past centuries), meaning A LOT of animal products, using just about every SCRAP of the animal, organ meats, fat, using the bones for stock, etc. He even has recipes for veal and foi-gras, with some commentary about his take on animal cruelty (Something like, ‘I’m generally against animal cruelty, but if I tasted that good after being locked up in a pen most of my life, I couldn’t blame you for trying…’).

    I might have quoted the book in a previous post. I remember something you’d posted before making me look up his section on ‘Pig,’ probably something to the effect of ‘a highly intelligent animal died so you could have bacon, so make sure to enjoy it’ or something along those lines.

    And read through his recipe for ‘Cote De Bouef’ for his opinions on certain government recommendations, too (See previous comment about his use of the ‘F-word’).

    Hey Bob–

    Bourdain’s ‘Les Halles Cook Book‘ is one of MD’s favorites. And his recipe for Cote de Bouef is at the top of the list. I love the thought of bringing great bloody chunks of meat to the table. We both love his irreverence, which we find really refreshing in a cookbook. In the midst of her own cooking misadventures MD has been known to utter the ‘F-bomb’ herself.

    And we love Les Halles in NY. We go there every chance we get. The steak tartare is unbelievable. Not to be missed.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  5. Only nitpicking: it’s “côte de boeuf” (the e after the o). If it is written differently in the book, then it is him who is wrong.

    He was right; I was wrong.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  6. Apologies on the spelling, I think I got it started wrong to begin with. I didn’t have the book handy and the only languages I’ve studied are German and a little Japanese and Koine Greek. (I’m sure the French would be THRILLED to know that I pronounce their language with decidedly GERMAN pronunciations).

    I should have guessed that the Les Halles Cook Book would already be part of the Eades’ culinary references. You may also already have Jacques Pepin’s ‘Complete Techniques,’ which is another one of my favorites (I’m a huge Alton Brown fan, too). In Pepin’s book, he has a section for ‘larding’ meats, where they’d take strips of lard and basically ‘sew’ them into larger roasts. Of course he has the usual caveat about that no longer being common due to low-fat and health concerns, but he includes it for ‘completeness.’ Have you or MD ever tried that? How did it turn out? I’m thinking it might be a good option for free-range, grass-fed beef which doesn’t tend to have the ‘marbling’ that grain/corn fed beef does.

    Of course, using lard may not be any better than eating well marbled corn fed beef, either. I don’t know.

    Hey Bob–

    MD and I have not tried the larding technique, although we do ow Pepin’s book. I’ll have to exert my husbandly prerogative and encourage her to give it a try. It sounds delicious.

    As far as Pepin including it only for completeness sake, I’m sure that was the compromise he came to with his publisher.
    Cheers–

    MRE

  7. Has anyone ever looked into how orphaned baby birds are raised? Wildlife rehabbers regularly feed baby birds with a tube into the crop. That’s how parent birds feed their young! They put the food directly into the crop!

    I myself raised an orphaned baby goldfinch to adulthood. When he was two weeks old, I fed him with an eyedropper in the mouth, which is dangerous and could lead to pneumonia. I didn’t have experience or the proper pipettes- however, all the literature I read on the subject told me that handfed baby birds are generally fed in that manner, with a tube (or pipette) down their throat directly into the crop. (This isn’t recommended for people who are not professionals because there is a danger of aspirating the baby if you accidentally miss the crop and get the food into their lungs.)

    The babies are grateful for the food and beg for more by flapping their wings and peeping and opening their mouths!

    Excellent point! Thanks for the comment.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  8. Larded beef meat is still very common in France and I once saw the butcher actually doing the “bardage”, it’s quite impressing the skill needed. Tournedos are also “bardés”.
    As for the spelling, I didn’t want to appear to be a spelling nazi, but will offer correction for french or german (I’m bilingual) when it is too bad.
    On another note, have you read the hyperlipid blog of an Englishman named Peter?
    http://high-fat-nutrition.blogspot.com/

    He makes some quite interesting points, especially concerning fat metabolism. Especially the part about what he calls fiaf, the influence of gut bacteria on fat storage, fascinating.

    Hey gallier2–

    Sounds to me since you also speak and write English that you are trilingual. Feel free to correct any spelling in any language.

    Hadn’t read the hyperlipid blog. Looks interesting, at least what I looked over. Thanks for the link. It’s just what I need: something else to read.

    Cheers–

    MRE