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Last Updated: Monday, 12 January, 2004, 09:49 GMT
Hungary foie gras farms under threat
By Nick Thorpe
BBC, Budapest

Stacked high in green plastic crates, 30 in each, the goslings look identical - each furry grey-yellow head clamouring for attention.

The poultry smell is almost overpowering.

The sight and the sound would melt any child's heart. But the fate of the birds would not.

Force feeding a goose (picture courtesy of CIWF)
CIWF believes force-feeding of any animal should be forbidden by law
Only a few hours after hatching from the giant incubator in this intensive goose farm near Oroshaza in southern Hungary, they are waiting for one of about 100 local family farms to come and pick them up, to fatten them for slaughter.

After a 12-week preparatory period, during which they are put through exercises to expand their stomachs and their neck muscles, the birds are force-fed around 12kg of swollen grain, usually maize, over an 18-day period.

Then, barely able to move, their livers swollen to six to 10 times their normal size, they are returned to Jozsef Kutni, and slaughtered.

Wild geese migrate several thousand kilometres, and keep their reserves of food and energy in their liver. We're just making use of their biological abilities
Jozsef Kutni
Hungary is the biggest exporter of goose liver in the world, shipping 1,800 tonnes each year. France is by far the biggest market, while Japan, Belgium and several other countries buy smaller quantities.

The Hungarians mainly export it raw, at 30 euros per kilo. Famous French companies spice, process, or cook it in a variety of ways, then either consume it themselves or sell it on to third countries as a "French" product.

But now the trade is under threat - both from animal welfare groups, and from the French consumers themselves.

Abolition deadline

Jozsef Kutni owns the goslings at Oroshaza. His parents were local goose-farmers too, but not quite on this scale. He has 9,000 grey adult geese, honking to their hearts' content in long halls, until the age of four, when they too, are slaughtered.

They certainly don't prepare for migration by having a pipe stuck down their throats
Levente Pencz, Fauna Association
Seven hundred and twenty geese in a 720 square metre space - exactly conforming to EU animal welfare norms. Heated in winter, cooled in summer. Doors open into the yard, if the birds want to stretch their legs.

It's dusk on a cold wintry afternoon. The red sun is just setting on the far-side of the farmyard, through frost-covered trees.

"Geese are not hard to keep if you treat them well," says Kutni. "They need a very peaceful environment. And if we satisfy all their needs, that care is rewarded."

He acknowledges however that there are clouds on the horizon. Several years ago, an expert group of vets, commissioned by the Council of Europe, defined force-feeding as an inherently cruel activity, but stopped short of calling for its abolition.

Poland, Denmark, Germany and Norway have banned the activity, but still import the finished product. Founder EU member France and new member Hungary, due to join in May 2004, have been given 15 years to abolish force-feeding.

Force feeding a goose (picture courtesy of CIWF)
French consumers are now buying less goose foie gras
In Israel, the third biggest world producer after Hungary and France, the Supreme Court ruled last summer that it should be banned, but gave producers until 2005 to find a "gentler" method of fattening geese.

An estimated 30,000 Hungarian farmers live from goose-farming.

They have taken a twin-track approach: to defend force feeding as an "almost natural process", and to experiment with ways to persuade a goose to eat more, without forcing a 20-30 cm long metal tube down its throat.

"A goose is genetically adapted to this, because it's a migratory bird which has been tamed," says Kutni. "Wild geese migrate several thousand kilometres, and keep their reserves of food and energy in their liver. We're just making use of their biological abilities."

Duck v goose

That argument cuts little ice with the animal welfare lobby.

"They certainly don't prepare for migration by having a pipe stuck down their throats, and being violently fed huge quantities of maize," says Levente Pencz of the Fauna Association, which is affiliated to the British-based pressure group Compassion in World Farming (CIWF).

"We believe force feeding should definitely be banned. That will be hard in Hungary, because of the number of people employed and the size of the exports - but there are good examples from other countries."

CIWF and other animal welfare groups hope the 15-year period of grace can be significantly shortened.

The other threat to Hungarian producers comes from their best friends - the French consumers. Over 90% of all foie gras consumed in France is now home-grown duck liver, not goose liver.

The taste, they say, is almost the same. Year by year, France is importing less goose-liver from Hungary.

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