Fighting foie gras in France | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 09.01.2014
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Fighting foie gras in France

Once a tasty national treasure, more and more French now view fattened duck or goose liver as unethical. DW's John Laurensen follows those livers from dinner plate to the battery cage - and doesn't like what he sees.

At the foie gras shop and restaurant near the Eiffel Tower called the Petit Sud-Ouest, a customer wafts in, all perfume and furs.

A man and woman smile outside their restaurant during an evening picture.

Chantal and Christian André in front of their Parisian restaurant

The proprietor, Christian André, whom she calls by his first name, steers her away from ordering the connoisseurs' favorite, raw duck's liver, at her dinner party. Best to go for the "mi-cuit" - half-cooked, he says.

Foie gras, the specially fattened liver of a duck or goose, is one of the stars of French gastronomy. It is even enshrined in French law as part of the country's cultural heritage. "All the top chefs put foie gras on their menus, because it's the taste of France - a typical product of the French countryside," André says.

It is surprising perhaps that the artificially bloated accessory organ of an amphibious bird should be so very delicious, but ever since the ancient Egyptians discovered foie gras, people have found it so.

It is expensive. A little bloc of mi-cuit from André's shop that would do as a starter for four people costs 50 euros ($68).

But increasing numbers of French people wouldn't eat it if you paid them.

Enter L214

Over the past few weeks, an animal rights group called L214 has been stepping up its anti-foie gras demonstrations. The name L214 comes from the law that changed French classification of animals as goods - as had been the case since Napoleon - to sentient beings.

"Torture is not our culture! Let's abolish foie gras!" the group chanted in front of the swanky Champs-Elysées "Fouquet's" restaurant. A few days later, they did the same at a cookery school run by super chef Alain Ducasse, where a class called "all around foie gras" is taught.

Protestors mingle with two men dressed as chefs.

L214 members dress up as chefs during protests to draw attention to the issue

A few years ago, such demonstrations were unthinkable. Cruelty to animals was perhaps the only thing the French did not protest about. But no longer.

"Foie gras is a disease for animals," Sébastien Arsac, one of L214's leaders, told DW. "When you force-feed ducks and geese, their livers swell to 10 times their original size. Animals get sick from this."

Grisly treatment

L214 also highlights what he says are three unpleasant facts about foie gras production. Only male ducks are suitable to produce foie gras, so many industrial producers simply kill all their female ducklings as soon as they've been sexed. Many ducks and geese die because of the mistreatment involved in foie gras production. Many are confined in battery cages.

A man sticks a cone-shaped metal feeding tube in the mouth and throat of a goose.

Force-feeding is considered cruel by animal rights activists

L214 wants foie gras to be banned outright. If they had their way, they'd go much further, as they believe killing animals for food or clothing is also morally unbearable. For the time-being, though, they are concentrating on shaming chefs into caring more about the well-being of foie gras ducks and geese.

Celebrity chef Joel Robuchon suspended orders of foie gras from a particular supplier a few weeks ago after an L214 film showed how it uses force-feeding guns to shoot blocks of maize mixed with fat down the throats and into the guts of caged ducks. Alain Ducasse, also accused of using foie gras from battery ducks, declined to be interviewed but said in a written statement that he condemns cruelty to animals and has asked his suppliers to provide information showing their conformity with current French and European regulations on the matter.

The French government has pledged to pass a European directive into law and ban individual cages at the end of 2015.

Feeding alternatives?

Is it true, though, as L214 claims, that the production of foie gras is cruel however you do it? Sixty kilometers (37 miles) west of Paris at the Ferme du Loup Ravissant - or the "Farm of the Ravishing Wolf" - Pascal Lecoq rears one and a half thousand ducks a year for their foie gras.

"Before taking them to the [force-feeding] room, we get the ducks used to eating more and more cereals over a 10-day period," Lecoq told DW. "We deprive them of food for part of the day so they throw themselves on their feed and enlarge their crops [the muscle tissue where a bird stores and softens its food - ed. note] by themselves."

A slice of liver sits on a plate on a dinner table in an al fresco setting.

Still being served at a French table near you - but for how long?

Inside the force-feeding room, I was a bit taken aback to see a line of ducks in the individual cages - cages the European Union says are cruel and which France is phasing out. Here, the ducks are immobilized for 15 days. They can stand up and sit down but not flap their wings.

Lecoq leans over, takes a duck by its long, rubbery neck, lowers a funnel full of maize into it and lets the cereal go with a clatter. "Their necks are not at all like ours," he says. "They are very supple and don't have a glottis to get in the way of the funnel so it's not at all painful."

But for those consumers who, on reflection, would still rather eat something else, what is the alternative?

I put that question to L214's Sébastien Arsac, and he said you can do some great things with vegetables. And perhaps, if only for the sake of their digestion, French people should heed his advice.

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