Foie gras has an ancient history spanning all the way to the banks of the Nile in ancient Egypt. The practice of feeding ducks or geese to purposely fatten their livers has been done for thousands of years. It’s gotten a bad reputation, due to the worst of the worst of farms that produce foie gras. Much like the rest of the meat world, sourcing makes all the difference. What most people don’t realize is that the best foie gras is produced when the ducks or geese live completely stress free lives. When the birds experience stress, the foie gras is significantly lacking in quality. It may come as a surprise that many foie gras farms are idyllic places where the animals are incredibly well cared for, content and healthy.
Is it unnatural for geese or ducks to have fatty livers? Let’s go back to the origins of foie gras. Pharaohs in ancient Egypt noticed that the liver they ate from ducks and geese preparing to migrate was especially delicious. They sought out to replicate the wonderful tasting fatty liver that they got from these birds by domesticating ducks and geese and devising methods to recreate this phenomenon in captivity. Wild migrating birds naturally achieve this result each year when engaging in their natural instincts in preparation for seasonal migration. They gorge themselves at this time of year, creating a huge surplus of fat on the liver and that will give them energy stores to live off of during their long journey.
Although foie gras is best known as a French delicacy, the fattened liver of geese and ducks has been enjoyed by cultures around the world since ancient times. The Egyptians, like we already discussed, were likely the first to intentionally create foie gras. There are many illustrations showing detailed accounts of the processes they used for producing birds with fatty livers. This is the first recorded history of foie gras that is known, so it’s possible that the practice stretches back even further into the depths of time. Foie gras was considered a delicacy and enjoyed by ancient Greek and Roman elites. In modern days, foie gras is a huge part of French culture and economics, as well as culinary culture across the world. Many farmers now use gentler methods for gavage, and most French people enjoy foie gras several times a year, especially during special occasions and holidays.
Let’s talk about the realities of farms that produce foie gras. Any butcher shop worth its salt will be sourcing all meat from the best farms they can find. When it comes to the best foie gras farms, you will find birds that are well taken care of and happy – which make come as a surprise if all you’ve seen is examples taken from the most abhorrent farms in operation. Ducks, like dogs, wag their tails to express happiness. On the best foie gras farms, ducks roam free with their tails wagging in readily apparent joy at their quality of life.
The feeding process is called gavage, and involves feeding with a tube and then massaging the duck’s neck to assist with swallowing. In southwest France, where the majority of the world’s foie gras is produced, many farms offer public tours and gavage demonstrations. These small family farms are a far cry from the factory farms that foie gras producers are often lumped in with. At farms like this, where the birds are happy and well kept, the gavage process doesn’t seem to ruffle any feathers. The ducks don’t make any noises while being fed and walk calmly away when the feeding is completed. On some farms, the birds even line up to receive gavage, eagerly awaiting the sensation that fulfills their natural instinct to gorge.
The fact that the ducks and/or geese are fed with tubes is commonly cited as being inhumane. One has to make the decision for themselves whether or not they believe this to be true. Some supporters of foie gras make the point that what seems uncomfortable to a human, may not be the same experience for a duck or a goose. When it comes to the way that ducks and geese react to the process (on farms that produce fine foie gras and treat their birds well), it doesn’t appear to bother them in the least. Like any meat, the place where it’s produced matters immensely. The meat industry is one where there is an absolutely massive amount of variance in conditions, ethics and quality. Foie gras production is no different, and when properly sourced can be a far cry from what some might imagine.