Foie gras – faux pas?

Our disgust at the French delicacy may be legitimate, but is it hypocritical?

By Bethan Vincent, first published in York on a Fork - The city of York's only food magazine

debate about foie gras

I like to imagine that the local historians of future York will one day come across this magazine and think it suitable archive material, ripe to be placed in a dusty store room with other miscellaneous artefacts of 21st century life. I am of course assuming here that archival funding will not have been cut into oblivion by the current government, but I’ve already strayed too far from the point to go into that any further…

So, back to goose liver. Once preserved for posterity in said local archive, eventually a future undergrad York historian, (desperate to find a dissertation subject using local source material) will come across our humble food ramblings and decide to perform some sort of cultural analysis – what did food mean to the residents of York? What role did it play in their society? What were the rituals and societal expectations associated with the consumption of food? What was considered acceptable for consumption and what was not?

My caveat to the above is that it is often hard to make generalisations. However, foie gras is a culinary example of something which is generally seen as bad in our society. It is afterall, illegal to produce it here in the UK, which is a strong indication of some consensus on the subject. Organisations such as the RSPCA and PETA have also publicly stated that the production of Foie Gras constitutes the cruel and inhumane treatment of animals.

For those who are not fully aware, it is a luxury food product made from the specially fattened livers of ducks or geese, which have been force fed corn through feeding tubes, in a process known as gavage. This force feeding ensures that the birds eat more than they would do if left to their own devices and is undoubtedly detrimental to the welfare of the birds, causing stress, throat damage and ill health due to swollen livers.

The main consumers and producers of Foie Gras are undoubtedly the French. In 2014 France was producing approximately 72% of the world’s supply.  Despite other 22 EU countries introducing a ban, French law explicitly states that "Foie gras belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France" (French rural code L654-27-1)

 During a trip to Paris a few years ago, it became evident that the dish could be found in most mid to high end restaurants, all of which seemed to be proud to serve it. I must profess that I did actually try a sample of foie gras entier, admittedly though I was unaware at the time of its unsavoury origins. I have to report that it was absolutely heavenly. If pate is the equivalent of meat jam, foie gras has to be the most luxurious meat compote – unctuous and satisfying beyond belief. I can see why demand remains high, despite the obvious controversy surrounding this national dish.

Now as someone who is fervently passionate about ethical issues in general and especially those in the food industry, you are right to be surprised at my admission of controversial consumption above.  It is true that I would not choose to eat it now; however I don’t believe it warrants the attachment of ortolan-esque shame that is sometimes called for when discussing the delicacy.

What I really would argue is that the meat and dairy industries, in their worst forms, are equally as inhumane. If we are disgusted at the thought of gavage and force feeding, should we not also be equally disgusted at the cramped conditions of intensively reared animals, or the wasteful destruction of male chicks in the egg industry?

Since the early-20th century, industrial farming and global capitalism have worked together to provide cheaper meat in much reduced timescales. This mass production has mostly has come at the expense of the living conditions and lifespan of the animals we consume, many of which have been denied space, light and the chance to reach maturity at a natural pace. Whilst the majority of animals are not force fed through a tube, they are undeniably condemned to a miserable existence which is mostly parallel to that experienced by those ducks and geese destined to produce foie gras.

You can understand a lot about a society when you unpick what it finds acceptable and what it finds abhorrent. I would argue that the most interesting part comes when you start to notice the dichotomy between what is considered socially acceptable and what is not.  An example might be the portrayal of female sexuality in current western media; in which a sexualised woman can be revered an example of the perfect female aesthetic, yet she may in other circumstances be labelled a “whore” for displaying similar behavioural trends.

On the whole, we are a nation of carnivores, who on average each consume 79.3 kg/year of meat. The majority of this meat will have been industrially produced in low welfare conditions, with little regard to the animal’s quality of life. Despite this, we continue to be appalled at the our Gallic neighbours fervent love for their national dish, which is also the product of animal suffering.

The historians of the future may well note our hypocrisy when it comes to currently controversial meat products.  If we are to condemn foie gras, we surely must also be compelled condemn aspects of the wider meat industry at home and abroad.