For a small-plate dish, foie gras causes quite the stir. This buttery French delicacy of fattened duck or goose liver can sell for as much as $125 for 2 pounds (0.9 kilograms). But it's not the hefty price tag that makes foie gras controversial.
Foie gras production requires force-feeding birds to enlarge their livers — up to 10 times the normal size. Many animal rights activists describe the process as cruel and torturous; government decision makers have been listening.
New York City is currently home to about 1,000 restaurants that serve foie gras, but on Oct. 30, 2019, the City Council voted to ban the dish beginning in 2022. New York will join California, Australia, India and numerous other places that prohibit foie gras for animal rights reasons. Whole Foods took foie gras off its shelves in 1997.
What Makes Foie Gras a Delicacy?
Foie gras is a duck or goose liver fattened through a labor-intensive force-feeding process known as gavage. The process dates back to ancient times when Egyptians force-fed domesticated geese upon discovering that "waterfowl developed large, fatty livers after eating large amounts in preparation for migration," according to the Artisan Farmers Alliance, a group representing foie gras farmers.
The gavage practice spread across the Mediterranean then into France in the late 16th century. French chef Jean-Joseph Clause is credited with creating the first pâté de foie gras in 1779. He patented the dish in 1784. He received 20 pistols from the food-loving King Louis XVI as a "thank you" for his culinary genius, according to The Spruce.
Foie gras — now a staple in France's gastronomical heritage — has a smooth texture and rich taste. It's most commonly served as a pâté with brandy, seasonings and truffles; pureed and spread atop toast; cooked in a terrine; or seared whole. It's mega-pricy due to the force-feeding labor and massive amount of feed needed to create the end product. In some cases, ducks and geese eat 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms) of corn feed per day.
What's So Controversial About a Plump Goose Liver?
The debate over foie gras cruelty centers on the invasive practice of gavage.
In this process, farmers force ducks and geese to eat "fatty, corn-based feed through a tube inserted into their throats." Their livers grow up to 10 times the original size, hence the name "foie gras" (a French term for fatty liver) — and hence the concern from animal rights activists. That's why the Big Apple's animal activists celebrated big when the foie-gras ban passed.
"New York has sent a clear message to foie gras producers that shoving a pipe down a duck's throat and force feeding them large amounts of grain for the sole purpose of diseasing and enlarging their liver is cruel and has no place in our compassionate city," Matt Dominguez, a political adviser for NYC-based Voters for Animal Rights (VFAR), says via email. Members of VFAR surrounded Mayor Bill de Blasio when he signed the foie gras ban into law Nov. 25, 2019.
According to the VFAR website, gavage can cause ducks to hyperventilate and bleed, and they're often shackled and have their throats cut during slaughter. That's why the group led a coalition of over 50 nonprofits who rallied for bill 1378, which prohibits "storing, maintaining, selling or offering to sell force-fed products or food containing a force-fed product," according to the bill. Once the ban takes effect in 2022, violators will pay from $500 to $2,000 for each offense.
Foie Gras Farmers Are Fighting Back
While Dominguez and other animal rights activists celebrated the foie-gras ban as a victory, those on the other side of the aisle are taking a stand. The Catskill Foie Gras Collective, which includes the main producers of NYC's foie gras, is challenging the city's ban. The group and farmers say it's unconstitutional, and that NYC does not have jurisdiction over the state of New York's protected agricultural businesses.
According to Catskill Foie Gras Collective President Marcus Henley, animal rights activists are the only ones who consider foie gras production inhumane.
"The idea that the small tube for feeding the ducks causes discomfort is the most misunderstood area of foie gras farming," Henley says. "Ducks are not like people. Their physiology is very different and the tube causes no discomfort."
The collective's ducks are cage free, fed via small rubber tube (versus traditional metal), and individually inspected by a government food safety officer, Henley says. Collective members stand by their approach to foie gras production, and aren't the only ones voicing their disapproval of the ban.
David Chang, esteemed chef and founder of NYC's wildly popular Momofuku restaurant, sides with the collective. "This is idiocracy," he wrote in a tweet (along with a few choice F bombs). "Stupid, short sighted, and a misunderstanding of the situation."
While the war wages on over foie gras ethics, longtime food critic Adam Platt wrote in a Grub Street article he thinks the once-trendy foie gras was already on its way out.
"When you start to consider all of the forbidden delicacies over the centuries that have gone in and out of fashion — terrapin soup, peacock tongues, the fabled ortolan — even the most avowed Francophile carnivore would probably admit that after a long and impressive run, the age of foie gras may be soon coming to an end," he wrote.