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Foie Gras: Indecent Indulgence?

Chicago Tribune’s Mark Caro reports on the controversial dish

Jul. 22, 2009
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Would you still be able to eat an animal if you knew exactly what it endured before ending up on your plate? As consumers, we live by a wide spectrum of standards that dictate our willingness to consume an animal for our own nutritional gain. Go to a dinner party and there will be a guest that endeavors not to consume animal products of any kind, while another guest suffers no compunction eating horse meat. While we create these self-imposed guidelines with the information we have, let’s consider the things we don’t know.

For example, would people eat foie gras, a popular French delicacy of specially fattened duck or goose liver, if they knew that farmers force-feed their fowl through a tube inserted in the birds’ throats? Perhaps there should be a dis claimer affixed to food products warning consumers that the ingredients contained within have been produced from farming practices that are considered ethically debatable. Sort of like a “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” for foodies.

The practice of gavage, or force-feeding, dates back 5,000 years, when ancient Egyptians began fattening birds by overfeeding them. Migratory birds are capable of storing large amounts of fat in the liver in preparation for migration. According to a report published by the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare, typical foie gras production involves force-feeding birds (mulard ducks are the most commonly used breed) more food than they would normally eat in the wild, and much more than they would voluntarily eat domestically. The feed, usually a mash of corn boiled with fat, deposits fat in the bird’s liver, thereby producing a rich, buttery flavor and delicate texture revered by foodies.

The E.U. report states that, “After hatching, the mulard ducks are kept in a building on straw for four weeks. They are then allowed to live outside, on grass for some weeks… The preparation of the animal is carried out in order to emphasize [esophagus] dilation… Such preparation makes it possible for the bird to receive a large quantity of food very rapidly, which will occur during the force-feeding period.”

The next feeding stage, what the French call gavage, includes forced daily ingestion of controlled amounts of feed twice daily for 12 to 15 days. According to Wikipedia, the feed is administered using a funnel fitted with a long tube that forces the feed into the animal’s esophagus. If an auger is used, the feeding takes 45 to 60 seconds. Modern systems typically use a pneumatic pump; in which case, the operation takes about two to three seconds per duck. Force-feeding produces a liver that is six to 10 times its ordinary size.

Due to the force-feeding procedure and the potential health risks of an enlarged liver, gavage-based foie gras production is highly controversial. In 2005, famous Chi-Town chef Charlie Trotter started an all-out war when he declared that foie gras was too cruel to be served. The Chicago City Council moved to ban the ancient delicacy while an international assembly of farmers, chefs, activists and politicians battled over whether fattening birds for the sake of indulgence amounts to agriculture or torture. Chicago Tribune reporter Mark Caro, who covered the story from the moment Trotter uttered his inciting words, has chronicled the foie gras controversy in Chicago and cities coast-to-coast in his new book The Foie Gras Wars.

On Thursday, July 23, at 7 p.m., Caro will be at Boswell Book Co., where he will discuss questions like: What is an acceptable amount of suffering for an animal to endure before it becomes a meal? Why are animal activists targeting a rare dish when such a large population of pigs, chickens and cows are being processed on factory farms? And, can our insatiable quest for the ultimate indulgence really justify treating an animal in such a way?

Boswell Book Co. is located at 2559 N. Downer Ave. For more information, call (414) 332-1181 or visit http://boswell.indiebound.com.


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