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Last Updated: Friday, 26 January 2007, 12:23 GMT
The Holy Grail of foie gras?
By Claire Heald and Diarmuid Mitchell
BBC News Magazine

Free range geese
A happier life for geese?
As York city council looks at banning foie gras, the French-named delicacy that comes from force feeding geese, Spanish farmers have perfected an "ethical" version. It's even won an award in France.

It is the foodstuff that leaves the table divided. On one side, those who consider the fatty goose liver the ultimate delicacy.

And opposite, those whose plates are pushed aside as their thoughts turn to the practice of gavage - force-feeding geese and ducks until their liver swells to many times its normal size.

York city councillors are considering what they can do to discourage the sale and serving of foie gras in the city. The answer may well be "not much" but they are keen to follow the US city Chicago, which has taken it off the menu, to show their disapproval.

Like veal production and battery hens, it is the process behind the product that raises culinary and moral hackles and puts many people off.

Even hardy food critics: "I've always been a bit squeamish about it - I wouldn't say I didn't eat it but I wouldn't order it, because of the same kind of thing about veal. You see pictures of geese with these huge things stuck down their throats..." says restaurant guide author Peter Harden.

Ancient practice

But that could change. Spain, a country not renowned for its love of animals, has come up with what could be foie gras's Holy Grail. It's not exactly guilt-free - vegetarians look away now, the goose still gets the bullet - but without being force fed first.

The practice of force-feeding geese has a long history - it is said to date back to Egyptian times. The purpose is to swell their liver so that it turns white, becomes more fatty and loses its bitter taste. A pipe inserted into their throats is used to administer the grain.

We know when the geese are ready because their bellies drag on the ground
Eduardo Sousa

As with much of farming and food production, it is the large-scale industrial-commercial enterprises that draw more criticism than small family-run farms.

Spanish company Pateria de Sousa, in Badajoz province, is seen as more ethical because it makes its foie gras by slaughtering the birds at a time when they have naturally eaten more to create reserves for what would have been migration.

It means the harvest is seasonal, before Christmas or in February, depending on the weather. And it is limited to geese, not including the more reliable, breed-able ducks. But the proof of the pudding comes in the tasting - and the French have already given it a food award at the Paris International Food Salon.

"We don't force feed the animals, they feed and live freely on our land," says the farm's owner, Eduardo Sousa. "The animals eat and eat and eat, so that they'll be fat for winter."

They live in symbiotic harmony with the farm's pigs, bred for its Spanish "jamon". While the pigs feed on acorns, the geese pick up their leftovers, plus the figs and lupins dotted around.

"We know when the geese are ready because their bellies drag on the ground." So how would they take off to migrate? Well, these ones don't.

By definition?

Culinary purists however say that without the force feeding, it is not foie gras. High-fat livers have been available before, but do not stand apart in taste terms and, in modern times, have not been accepted as the real thing.

It would take a scientific experiment involving cutting the goose open to have a look, to establish whether full-blown foie gras is produced, argues food writer Josephine Bacon.

She also maintains that worrying about foie gras production on a small scale is a false concern compared with intensive farming. Gavage, she maintains, is "perfectly natural".

"They enjoy it, they don't mind, they love being petted and cuddled while its being done."

Gesture politics?

For Mr Harden, it is right that we explore whether it is cruel, and if there is a less cruel way to produce foie gras - although York's approach may be gesture politics - there are bigger fish to fry in animal cruelty in terms of the larger numbers of battery hens, or pigs.

"If as a foie gras goose you get a little cuddle, is that better than being a pig kept in filthy conditions on some farm somewhere?"

"But ethical production would be a good thing - in the same way as your average free range organic chicken, scratching around in woodland, watching neighbours when it wants to, tastes better than a battery hen being pecked to death by its neighbours in a small cage."

Either way, British consumers will be able to test it for themselves later this year - Mr Sousa says some outlets, possibly including Harrods, have put in orders. It will set buyers back about 23 Euro (15) for 70g.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

The comment that the geese "do not mind being force fed as they get a little cuddle" would be laughable if it were not so shocking. Would cats/dogs/children not mind being force fed if they got a cuddle at the same time? Ridiculous! There are plenty of other foods available to people, so why in this day and age do we insist on eating food which is produced by barbaric methods? I have never and will never eat foie gras knowing where it comes from - disgusting.
Cheryl Johnson, Hyde, Manchester

I visited a small family-run foie gras farm in the Dordogne in France. Far from appearing traumatised, the geese waddled over and waited their turn to be fed. I have no qualms about eating the stuff now, but I won't touch eggs or meat from those poor caged chickens that are kept in disgusting conditions all over Europe.
Greg Parker, Sydney, Australia

As usual, the point is missed entirely here. Cycling thousands of tonnes of grain through suffering animals in order to produce a tiny amount of snob-munch is a practice as backward as any I can think of. As is usually the case with livestock, the grain could feed many times the amount of people if it were distributed evenly to begin with, instead of being pneumatically pumped into an innocent creature with the sole intention of inducing painful liver disease.
Steve Shaw, Bristol, UK

Banning foie gras in York! Once again 'they' insist they know better than us. 'They' insist that 'they' inhabit the moral high ground; implying that we are not so advanced or developed in our thinking as 'them'. This is another proxy battle by the militant veggies whose ultimate aim is to reduce our freedom and make us follow their fascist diktat of vacuous vegetarianism.
Peter, Oxford UK

I'm not sure it concerns 'vacuous vegetarianism' but rather why animals should be mistreated to provide a luxury food-stuff. Nothing against killing animals for food, however in Europe we don't have any excuses for not treating animals 'humanely' in rearing and killing them.
Peter, Barnet

It's a matter of choice surely? You can choose to eat it or not, to go to a particular restaurant or not. There are plenty of farming methods which are just as cruel, foie gras is an easy target. If the policymakers are going to decide what we can and can't eat, where will it end?
Sarah Halloran, Godalming

Wish I lived in York is all the councillors have nothing to worry about but geese. If you eat meat, animals will be kept against their will and killed for your pleasure. If you can't accept that, become a veggie.
Chris, Birmingham

I find Peter for Oxford's comments laughable and a little insulting. I am an unapologetic carnivore. I eat meat and quite a bit of it. I will never touch foie gras or veal because I don't believe it's natural. The fact that animals are a food source should not allow us to abuse them in this way. I happily pay a little extra for organic and free range. My wife is a vegetarian and has never tried to reduce my freedom as a meat eater. She only asks that she does not have to buy it for me... a price I am more than willing to pay!
Steve, Colchester, Essex

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