While it is true that ducks and geese tend to gorge themselves in the wild to fatten themselves up for long seasonal migrations., and that as a result, their liver cells will occasionally gain lipids and change color in a process that veterinarians call steatosis and chefs foie gras, it’s also true that the brutal process used to force-fatten large numbers of ducks and geese (called gavage in French), involves wedging metal pipes down the throats of the birds.
A study in 2008, based largely on a report by the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Welfare, found that death rates during force-feeding of birds rose as much as 2,000%. Other credible studies indicated precisely what common sense would indicate, that the metal feeding tube was painful to the animals.
The initial response to the publication of these reports was quite dramatic. First, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production recommended eliminating the practice altogether. Then in July 2012, after allowing several years for farmers to adapt to the decision, California banned the sale of foie gras altogether.
Then, in January 2015 a federal judge ruled that the California ban was unconstitutional because it conflicted with the Poultry Products Inspection Act, a federal law that regulates poultry ingredients and is completely unrelated to the health, suffering or welfare of the animals. Finally, in February of 2016, California Attorney General Kamala Harris filed an appeal to restore the foie gras sales ban leading to its reinstatement in 2017.
Foie gras can also be produced without the use of gavage, albeit on a much smaller scale. The Spanish producer Pateria de Sousa makes prize-winning foie gras by laying out huge amounts of figs, acorns, beans, and olives for geese late in the fall and then slaughtering the birds right after they’ve gorged themselves voluntarily. Despite the fact that livers harvested in this manner are significantly smaller, the quality in terms of both compassion and cuisine is also significantly higher. That higher price, whatever it may be, remains a small price to pay when compared to the benefits of humane standards in the cultivation and harvest of animal products.