- What is foie gras?
- Foie gras in Canada
- Global production
- Industry claims
- International response
Foie gras is the French term for “fatty liver”, and it is the product of extreme animal cruelty.
24 million ducks and geese die in the foie gras industry every year, 500,000 of them in Canada. In modern foie gras factory farms, these waterfowl are intensively raised in large, enclosed barns.1 Ducks and geese need to immerse themselves in water to remain healthy and clean their feathers, eyes, and nostrils properly, but in these farms there is none. Blindness is common.
The birds never see daylight until they are taken to slaughter. All are male; the female ducks are discarded after hatching. They are generally thrown away live. Workers have been documented as they dropped a cloth bag full of live baby ducks into a garbage can filled with scalding hot water. Any survivors had their heads smashed against the can. 2
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In some farms, birds are kept in dirty, crowded community pens. At three months of age, these birds are taken from their community pens and forced into individual wire mesh cages barely larger than their bodies. Thus restrained, the birds are unable to escape the farm workers and mechanized feeding system.
One by one, the farm worker grabs each immobilized bird and forces a metal pipe down their throats. An enormous amount of a corn-and-oil mixture is pumped by a machine directly into their gullets in just a few seconds – up to one-third of the birds’ own body weight each day.3 They are fed in this way for 2 to 4 weeks before being slaughtered.4
Ducks and geese suffer tremendously during and after the force-feeding process. Within just two weeks, their livers have become diseased and have swollen up to ten times their normal size—a condition known as hepatic lipidosis. According to Dr. Marianne Heimann, a veterinary pathologist, “The liver steatosis caused by ‘gavage’ is a pathological process that shows itself first by a fatty degeneration of the hepatic cells and then by necrosis. The fatty liver cannot be seen as normal. It is a categorical sign of a state of illness with clinical symptoms.” 5
As the liver swells, it pushes against the lungs and forces the ducks’ legs into an unnatural angle. Eventually they can scarcely stand, walk, or even breathe, and have been observed panting and struggling to stand, using their wings to push themselves forward when their crippled legs can no longer support them.
Grossly enlarged livers are less able to perform their function of cleansing the bloodstream of waste products from the body…the swollen livers also put pressure on the abdominal airsacs, which impairs the bird’s ability to breathe. They also push the legs out laterally, making it difficult for the birds to walk properly.”
–Avian vet, Laurie Siperstein-Cook6
They sometimes die when the metal feeding tubes puncture their necks, when their stomachs literally burst from the enormous volume of food they are forced to ingest, or when force-feeding overfills them to the point of suffocation.7 Undercover footage from one foie gras farm shows two ducks so weak that they are unable to fend off the rats who are eating them alive.
On some farms, a single worker is expected to feed 500 birds, three times a day. 8 This leads to rushed, rough treatment on the part of the stressed workers, who have even been filmed literally throwing birds. 9
I saw on many occasions workers who’d kick the duck so hard, the duck would be launched into the air 15 or 20 feet… Ducks at the rear were thrown toward enclosures 20 or 30 feet away. Workers inside enclosures would grab two ducks at once… grabbed by wings… and could feel and hear crushing noises, or the wing pop out of the socket. –former employee of Elevages Perigord 10
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Necropsies performed on foie gras birds have shown them to suffer from grossly enlarged livers, lacerated tracheas and esophagi, pneumonia, throats and gullets severely impacted with undigested corn, massive internal bacterial and fungal growth—all consequences of the production method for which veterinary care is not profitable.11, 12 The mortality rate on foie gras farms is up to 10 to 25 times higher than that of conventional duck farms.13 At one farm, bonuses were even issued to workers who managed to accidentally kill fewer than 50 of their assigned 500.14
The idea for the force-feeding practice is thought to have originated in ancient Egypt, after people noticed that wild geese consume large amounts of food prior to embarking on long migrations. Because Egyptians, and later Romans, considered the fat-laden flesh and organs of those geese caught after pre-migration feeding to taste better, they sought to artificially induce and exaggerate the condition in captive geese. The practice of force-feeding of captive geese and ducks took hold, later degenerating and devolving into what is now the modern foie gras industry.15
Canadian Foie Gras Production
The entire Canadian foie gras industry is located in Quebec. Three producers—Elevages Perigord, Aux Champs d’Elisee and Palmex–account for the majority of production, but there are several other small producers in the province. Though Quebec has only been producing foie gras for 12 years, production has increased to 8500 livers per week—a total output of 2 tons weekly. Today, about 500,000 ducks are killed each year in Quebec’s foie gras industry.
According to Quebec foie gras producers, they export about 30% of their products to the United States and 10% to the rest of Canada. The remainder is consumed within Quebec.
Global Foie Gras Production
France produces and consumes 90 percent of the world’s foie gras, with roughly 24 million ducks and half a million geese killed annually. Nearly all the birds are raised in intensive confinement systems, and all endure brutal, intensive force feeding, several times a day, prior to their deaths.
Approximately 500,000 birds are killed annually for foie gras in the United States. Other major producers of foie gras include Hungary, Bulgaria and China.
Industry Claim #1: Foie gras is an extension of the natural, pre-migration gorging behaviors of migratory fowl.
This claim is a misleading one. While it is true wild geese and ducks sometimes increase their food intake prior to migration, they do not gorge themselves up until the point of death. The livers of wild ducks and geese have been known to expand up to twice their normal size prior to migration, but not a ten-fold expansion as is found in forced-feeding production.
Additionally, the duck species used in foie gras production – a hybrid of Pekin and Muscovy known as Moulard – are non-migratory and not predisposed to gorging of any kind.
According to Emily D. Levine, DVM, in her observations of foie gras farms:
Although these animals have a genetic predisposition to store larger amounts of fat in their liver, they do so for the specific purpose of preparing to migrate. The birds in the industry do not migrate and do not presumably receive the external environmental cues that would normally signal them to begin to eat more than usual…I saw several birds that were exhibiting clinical signs of respiratory difficulty and or distress (panting, open mouth breathing, distinct abdominal effort to breathe, and tail bobbing). In the case of Foie Gras birds, the respiratory difficulty is likely to be due to the enlarged liver, which can compress the air sacs, making breathing difficult in general…Several of the animals looked as if they were limping.16
Veterinarian Dr. Yvan Beck noted that, “…at the end of this process the birds are unable to make the slightest exertion, which is the direct opposite of the purpose [of fatty buildup] under natural conditions…There is no comparison between the natural buildup of fats by waterfowl before migration, which occurs in peripheral tissue (50% in the breast area), and the extreme conditions which result from forced feeding.” 17
Industry Claim #2: Ducks possess hardened, “calcified” esophagi, and are therefore not sensitive to pain when feeding pipes are forced down their throats.
This is not true. According to Holly Cheever, DVM, their throats are “just as delicate and subject to traumatic injury as ours.”18
Her studies of ducks used in foie gras state that “the esophagus is severely traumatized; post mortem examinations reveal scarring and lacerations and even occasional rupture of the esophagus from excessive pressure.”19
The Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare of the European Union states that “the oropharyngeal area is particularly sensitive and is physiologically adapted to perform a gag reflex to prevent fluids from entering the trachea. Force feeding will have to overcome this reflex and hence the birds may initially find this distressing and injury may result.”20
Industry Claim #3: A duck or goose “is capable of swallowing whole, wriggling, spiny fish without damaging its esophagus.” 21
This is entirely incorrect. Necropsied foie gras birds frequently show signs of esophagal trauma–scarring, lacerations, and bacterial and fungal infections, all indications that something is wrong with the feeding process. Additionally, this claim is wrong on a scientific level, since the type of ducks used in foie gras production do not eat “whole, wriggling, spiny fish” or indeed any fish at all. Foie gras ducks are moulards, a species hybrid of pekin (a type of mallard) and muscovy ducks. Mallards are classified as “dabbling ducks”, and mainly subsist on seeds, roots, stems, and various other aquatic vegetation; in breeding season, they will also eat aquatic insect larvae, earthworms, snails and freshwater shrimp.22 Muscovy diets are similar, consisting of “plant material obtained by grazing or dabbling in shallow water, with some small vertebrates and insects.” 23 Only some “diving ducks,” such as mergansers, eat small fish on a regular basis, and they exist in a distinct subfamily, Aythyinae. (No diving ducks are used in foie gras production.) Geese, meanwhile, are almost entirely vegetarian. 24
Industry Claim #4: The American Veterinary Association has refused to take a stance on foie gras.
This is true, but misleading. The American Veterinary Medical Association has not come out against foie gras; it has also rejected proposals to come out in favour of it. Instead, the AVMA decided in 2005 that an official position, either in favour of or against foie gras, was not possible because it believed that “limited peer-reviewed, scientific information is available dealing with the animal welfare concerns associated with foie gras production, but the observations and practical experience shared by… members indicate a minimum of adverse effects on the birds involved.” The Animal Welfare Committee of the AVMA, however, recommended that the House of Delegates adopt the following position: “Resolved, that the AVMA opposes the practice of mechanical force feeding of ducks and geese to produce foie gras because of the adverse effects on the birds’ health and welfare associated with this practice.”25
In 2007 a pro-foie gras resolution came before the American Veterinary Medical Association’s House of Delegates asking that they take the following position: “Resolved, that the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) approves that the production of foie gras, in accordance with AVMA welfare committee guidelines, is an acceptable agriculture practice.” Like anti-foie gras resolutions before it, this resolution was disproved, meaning it was not adopted.26
It is also worth noting that the AVMA has historically been reluctant to adopt a position that conflicts with current practice. Some notable controversial practices that the AVMA has not come out in opposition to are forced molting and gestation crates.27 They have also approved of such practices as tail docking and ear notching of pigs, and of battery cages for egg-laying chickens.28,29
- In 2006, Chicago banned the sale of foie gras (the ban has since been repealed).
- In 2012, California enacted a ban on the sale and production of foie gras.
- Both the European Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have come out fully against foie gras.
- In the past decade, a large number of nations have banned foie gras production, including Israel, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg, Norway, and Poland.
- Other countries whose laws effectively ban the force feeding of animals for foie gras production include Holland, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. 30
2. PETA investigation at Commonwealth Enterprises (now Hudson Valley Foie Gras), 1991
5. Dr. Marianne Heimann, Forced feeding: An inquiry into the welfare of ducks and geese kept for the production of foie gras, 2000 February
8. Farm Sanctuary, “The Welfare of Ducks and Geese in Foie Gras Production: A Summary of the Scientific and Empirical Evidence,” 2004
Farm Sanctuary video, Foie Gras Assembly Line
13. Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare of the European Union, Welfare Aspects of the Production of Foie Gras in Ducks and Geese16 December 1998
14. PETA investigation at Commonwealth Enterprises (now Hudson Valley Foie Gras), 1991
18. Albany Times Union, 28 May 2004
20. Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare of the European Union, Welfare Aspects of the Production of Foie Gras in Ducks and Geese, 16 December 1998