I. What is Foie Gras?
Whenever someone asks me what foie gras is, I ask them if they remember the Morgan Spurlock documentary, Super Size Me. Towards the end of his thirty-day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner binge on McDonald’s, one of Spurlock’s doctors tells him if he doesn’t stop the experiment he will die because his liver is turning into fat. From production to result, that’s what foie gras is. Fat. Liver.
To me, foie gras is pretty tame as far as oddities go. Raw horse meat, tongue, hearts, kidneys, andouillette, some mysterious sea slug I ate in Japan that almost made me sick before I tried it again – I think I have a pretty adventurous palate. It’s not the taste of fois gras that poses the challenge – it’s absolutely delicious.
When you start getting into the far end of the luxury food spectrum, ethical questions become more pronounced or visible. Recently, I had the opportunity to try the infamous Chinese shark fin soup. But I decided to give it miss after learning that the shark fins provide absolutely no flavor. The boiled down cartilage merely acts as a thickener in lieu of far more readily available options. Never mind the reprehensible and wasteful harvesting process, this kind of unnecessary gimmickry is hard to justify – it’s also just plain insulting.
With fois gras, however, the moral hazard is a little more complicated.
It all comes down to the production via a force-feeding process called “gavage”. The duck or goose is fed several times a day - usually with corn cooked in fat - through a tube inserted down its esophagus into what’s known as the duck’s “crop”. The crop is in the lower neck area and is “essentially a storage tank for food” (see this CNN article for more details). The crop empties as the food is passed on to be digested. After a few weeks, the metabolic magic turns the deep red liver pale and swollen. Interestingly, it takes about the same amount of time to prepare foie gras whether you’re using waterfowl or Morgan Spurlock.
While it may be new to humans, the force feeding of these birds apparently goes back 4500 years to ancient Egypt. It was also very popular throughout the Roman Empire.
But why have ducks and geese always been the lucky ones? Two reasons. The Egyptians discovered that migratory birds have a special knack for storing fat for their long journeys. So you can’t make foie gras with chickens. But what about with swallows (African or European)? No. Ducks and geese are uniquely suitable for force-feeding because of their extremely flexible esophagi and their lack of a gag reflex.
Gavage is the central issue of the debate. It’s not that the operative word is forced. What part of animal food production isn’t forced? Animal rights groups argue that the practice can be harmful, irritating, and sometimes deadly for the birds. Farmers deny this. In any case, the product has become increasingly complex in response. Guilt is a dominant market force these days and a whole range of alternative methods have been formulated to put consumer’s minds at ease. But force-feeding remains definitional to foie gras. The liver can’t reach the desired state under the bird’s own volition. Without the process, there’s no product.
In 2004, California passed a ban on the production and sale of foie gras. The law provided seven and a half years for agricultural producers to find an alternative to force-feeding. If they were successful by July 2012, then the ban would not come into effect.
II. California Says No, France Says Non
I spent part of the holidays in the southwest of France, in the heart of duck country. France produces about 75% of world’s foie gras – about 19,450 tons (“Foie Gras: A qui la palme?” Le Mag, Sud Ouest – 29/12/2012). Most of it is produced in this region and the industry employs nearly 30,000 people. It was the peak of the season for the fatty delicacy and I was getting hungry. So I went to the store.
Grocery stores everywhere are laid out according to the same rules. Designers want people to wander through as much as possible to ensure that they’ll pick up things on impulse. This is part of the reason why only a third of what you leave with on average is what you actually intended to buy. A store has to fit the tastes and needs of the country it’s in, so as a tourist you can learn a lot by going to one.
I guess it came as no surprise that the furthest corner of this supermarché was where you found the essentials – wine – all of great quality, of course. I also noticed terrines of foie gras scattered in little islands near the checkout counters like candy.
But I was still taking my time, gawking at the tantalizingly cheap bottles of red when I came across a prominently posted sign: “In response to the State of California’s boycott on importing and marketing foie gras, we have decided to remove our Californian wine selection.”
Our Gallic cousins don’t take anything sitting down – especially when it comes to food.
But who would ever buy Californian wine in France anyway? Turns out, next to no one. While I haven’t been able to find any hard statistics on domestic consumption at all, according to this wine blogger there are 11 restaurants in France that serve CA wine. Last year, they sold only 97 bottles of it between them.
This made me wonder how much French foie gras makes its way to Califronia. Also very, very little. I couldn’t find numbers just for the one state, but France exports about 4,000 tons to the US annually. California only has (or had) one producer. It’s not a big seller anywhere outside of France. So what’s behind these perceived and empty threats between the world’s 5th (FR) and 8th (CA) largest economies?
France’s concern lies only with the perception of its legally protected and UNESCO World Heritage cuisine. “This is hugely prejudicial to our image,” said Marie-Pierre Pé, head of the Professional Committee of Foie Gras Producers. “This ban isn’t going to affect us commercially, but it makes us look bad. California, after all, is a trend-setting state that the rest of the world has a tendency to follow.” While bans currently exist in 14 countries, the 30,000 industry jobs are secure for the foreseeable future.
III. Guilty Pleasures
So, how will your stomach vote? Most likely, it really doesn’t matter. Most people will never try foie gras and unless they regret that fact, they’re not missing out. It is what it is. It may be cruel, but it’s also delicious. Whether it’s over gavage or your waist line, it’s a pity that such an interesting product can be tainted by guilt. I can only say, if you feel guilty about eating it – don’t.
On the other hand, guilt also has a reputation for enhancing pleasure. You wouldn’t enjoy it as much if you didn’t know it was bad. Maybe this is why some restaurants in California are ignoring the ban in the face of customer demand.
It’s pretty absurd. They’re listing foie gras as a “complimentary” ingredient in a few expensive dishes, so, technically, they aren’t selling it. Many chefs stocked up before the ban came into effect. When that runs out, they’ll have go to Nevada to buy more. I’m torn between distaste for these loop-hole seeking worms and laughing at the prospect of foie gras bootleggers in high-speed chases with the police. Whether you love it or hate it, you’ve got to admit foie gras is powerful stuff. All this over some fat duck’s liver…