Long accused of torture by animal rights activists, French foie gras producers are starting to admit that they may have gone too far and are vowing to change how ducks and geese are reared, and how their livers are fattened.
They are also promising a new spirit of openness and transparency about the controversial practice of gavage — the force-feeding of animals by passing plastic tubes through their throats directly into their stomachs.
“Maybe we did go a little too far,” said Marie Pierre Pe of CIFOG, an industry group representing French foie gras producers.
“In the 80s, 30 to 35 percent of foie gras came from Eastern European countries. We had to improve production to be more competitive and maybe went too far,” she said.
Animal rights activists have carried out a sustained campaign against foie gras — which means “fatty liver” in French — for decades.
Its sale has been banned in California, Britain’s House of Lords has taken it off its menu and Internet retailer Amazon.com Inc has banned it from its Web site.
The delicacy — a standard feature on French tables at Christmas and other festive occasions — is fiercely defended by fans who argue that birds stuff themselves with food in the wild while undertaking long migratory voyages.
Yet critics insist the practice is cruel and a 1998 EU report showed that death rates among force-fed birds could be up to 20 times higher than in those reared normally.
Foie gras producers have also come under fire for keeping the ducks and geese in cages where they have no space to move or even spread their wings.
France — which accounts for 75 percent of global foie gras production — widely adopted the practice of keeping birds in cage-like boxes in the 1980s.
Now, steps are being taken to improve conditions, with the French Ministry of Agriculture ordering producers by 2016 to introduce cages capable of housing at least three birds and that are big enough for them to move around and spread their wings.
CIFOG is also opening the doors of farms to show how the animals are reared and fed.
“Of course, gavage is not very romantic and so we avoided talking about it, but now we are trying to explain it more and more,” Pe said.
As part of its transparency drive, CIFOG recently showcased a farm in the region of Gers run by Pierre Peres and his twin brother, Philippe, who force-feed nearly 9,000 ducks a year.
Considered an artisan farm, it is far from typical industrial production.
At the Peres farm, ducks are kept in enclosed areas, but are free to move around. Force-feeding is done individually, with feeders picking up the animals and placing them on their laps to insert a funnel in their throats.
At the start of the gavage period, which normally lasts 15 days, the ducks are fed 250g of maize. The quantity is slowly increased to 500g.
There are about 1,500 such artisan foie gras farms in France, but they are hardly the norm. The vast majority of producers, about 5,000, are industrial sites that are the main target of rights groups.
A visit to an industrial foie gras farm run by the Euralis agricultural cooperative reveals a different world altogether from the Peres farm.
A total of 1,000 ducks are force-fed there, bundled in tight cages housing three birds each.
The cages are raised to human height to make the task of feeding the birds easier for workers. The floor below is a stinking mess, with a flowing yellow river of droppings and duck fat.