Foie Gras Industry Position Statement
Sentient opposes the production, importation, sale and consumption of foie gras due to the inherent cruelty entailed in creating this ‘delicacy’. Although producing foie gras is illegal in Australia, there is no restriction on importing from France, its main producer. It is also produced in Hungary, Bulgaria, Belgium, Spain, the United States, Canada, and more recently in China, where the market is rapidly expanding.
Foie gras (French for “fatty liver”) is a liver pate derived by force-feeding male ducks and geese until their livers become grossly distended from fatty deposits, sometimes up to ten times the normal size. These birds suffer from hepatic lipodosis (fatty liver disease), a painful condition that is deliberately inflicted by being force-fed larger quantities of food than they would voluntarily eat. The feed consists of grain that is high in energy yet deficient in essential nutrients such as protein, thus leading to malnutrition. The force-feeding procedure, known as ‘gavage’, involves passing a long metal or plastic tube into their stomachs under high pressure two or three times daily. This must overcome the birds’ natural gag reflex, so is highly aversive to them, as evidenced by their behavioural responses of hissing and attempting to move their heads away when approached by workers. Force-feeding is preceded by rough handling of the neck and causes pain and injury to the highly sensitive tongue, pharynx and oesophagus, often leaving blood on the feeding tube. Oesophageal inflammation and injury exacerbate the pain of subsequent force-feedings and can lead to opportunistic fungal and bacterial infections. The tubes are not cleaned between birds, risking the spread of infectious disease. Animals can also die as a result of oesophageal perforation or aspiration pneumonia.
During the force-feeding period, birds are kept in intensive housing, restricted to barren individual or small group cages that offer no opportunities for normal social interactions or natural behaviours (such as exercising, foraging, preening, interacting with water or swimming). This causes stress and frustration, and is particularly problematic for waterfowl, who require open water for maintaining eye, nostril and plumage condition and for engaging in instinctual behaviours. Birds in individual cages (approximately 80% of ducks) are unable to even flap their wings, turn around or stand normally. The inability to spread their wings results in open-mouthed breathing as the birds attempt to thermoregulate, and this increases throughout the force-feeding period in response to excess heat generated by grain over-consumption. There is no opportunity to escape from peer aggression or from the constant noise and close proximity to conspecifics, all sources of ongoing stress. The birds are often kept in darkness, except during feeding, in order to keep them calm. This further restricts their ability to perform natural behaviours. Standing on inappropriate flooring, such as wooden slats or wire mesh, causes painful foot infections (Bumblefoot) that can progress into the joints.
By the time of slaughter, the birds are in an advanced stage of liver disease. Many experience liver failure, difficulties with mobility and breathing due to abdominal distention, and sometimes secondary heart failure, kidney failure or liver haemorrhage. Due to the impact of their diet on calcium metabolism, birds are predisposed to osteopathy and subsequent bone fractures, with the majority suffering fractures to the wing (mainly the humerus bone) when being handled at slaughter. Birds also experience high mortality rates during the force-feeding period.
The often used defence that force-feeding is analogous to the adaptive behaviour of wild ducks and geese in preparation for their winter migration is inaccurate, because wild birds increase their energy reserves by eating more frequent, rather than larger meals. Furthermore, the resulting fat is stored primarily in adipose tissue and muscle, so the livers of migrating waterfowl would never increase by more than double their normal size. Sentient acknowledges that alternative methods of production, referred to as ‘ethical’ or ‘humane’ foie gras, provide vastly improved standards of animal welfare. In this small fraction of the market, foie gras is produced without force-feeding by keeping birds entirely free range and allowing them to increase their feed intake naturally, with slaughter being timed to coincide with winter migration. This product is unlikely to meet market demands, however, due its seasonality, lower fat content and labour intensiveness, and the risk remains that the terms ‘ethical’ or ‘humane’ foie gras will be misused by producers who continue to use force-feeding and intensive housing.