The Best Foie Gras Comes from Happy Birds

By Peter Turchin December 28, 2014 6 Comments

My post The Ultimate Health Food, Revealed! generated a number of comments, some of them quite critical of foie gras and gavage, the process by which ducks and geese are fattened. Fortunately, one reader (Bruce) weighed in on the opposite side and I reproduce his response here, because I don’t want it to be lost in the comments to the previous blog:

As a former producer of foie gras I’m probably the only reader of this blog who can provide first-hand evidence. After the first few days of force-feeding my geese caught on to the procedure and would come to me to be fed. Inserting a tube into their gullet is painless – the person doing the job would be the first to know if there was discomfort. A goose which has been feeding on grass all day comes home with a great bulge in its neck, which is a flexible storage area.

I’ve not been in a commercial foie gras factory in eastern europe or elsewhere, so I don’t know about conditions there. There are good and bad examples in all animal-producing branches. But in southwest France the local producers that I’ve met wouldn’t dream of keeping geese in tiny stalls during the period of gavage. You only get good foie gras from healthy (and happy) birds, and geese are highly social.

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Take a look at the first picture of Egyptian foie gras production above. That’s how it’s done, with the feeder sitting down and the geese milling around. Notice the goose nibbling away at the food on the stool while awaiting its turn to be force-fed.

That was precisely my impression, but I, of course, cannot speak with the same authority as a person who actually reared the birds for foie gras.

Here’s an interesting and detailed article The Physiology of Foie: Why Foie Gras is Not Unethical which describes how foie gras is produced on an American farm. Also watch this movie for the actual process of gavage (in France).


Here’s a video about the whole process of producing foie gras at la Ferme de Souleilles (it’s in French, but I think it’s pretty self-explanatory).

The main point is that there is nothing particularly bad about gavage (which, by the way means “stuffing”). That’s what ducks and geese do when they need to store enough energy for the migration. The opponents of foie gras use the bait-and-switch tactic – ostensibly they are against the gavage, but instead they show horrible videos of birds held under inhumane conditions in cages, which is a completely separate story. Such intellectual dishonesty doesn’t strengthen their case, to say the least.

There is a lot of hypocritical hand-wringing surrounding this issue. Here’s a reaction from a Russian acquaintance:

I find it remarkable that the same people, who protest against force-feeding ducks through their gullets, have no objection to force-feeding Guantanamo detainees through their anuses.

I suspect that my Russian colleague is incorrect, and these are quite different groups of Americans (people outside the U.S. tend to think of the Americans as one monolithic mass). On the other hand, the state of California, which has banned both the production and sale of foie gras, has no problem with employing John Yoo as professor of law (!) at the University of California.

Published On: December 28, 2014

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who works in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Currently he investigates a set of broad and interrelated questions. How do human societies evolve? In particular, what processes explain the evolution of ultrasociality—our capacity to cooperate in huge anonymous societies of millions? Why do we see such a staggering degree of inequality in economic performance and effectiveness of governance among nations? Turchin uses the theoretical framework of cultural multilevel selection to address these questions. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating the Seshat Databank project, which builds a massive historical database of cultural evolution that will enable us to empirically test theoretical predictions coming from various social evolution theories.

Turchin has published 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including a dozen in Nature, Science, and PNAS. His publications are frequently cited and in 2004 he was designated as “Highly cited researcher” by ISIHighlyCited.com. Turchin has authored seven books. His most recent book is Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Beresta Books, 2016).

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  • You don’t have to go far to find summaries of research indicating aversion (yes, they’re not lining up), harm to welfare, higher mortality etc – which of course you don’t get from advertisements by the foie gras industry. This seems to be the most cited: http://ec.europa.eu/food/animal/welfare/international/out17_en.pdf

    However, the most interesting and surprising part of this report (from an evolutionary point of view) is the following:

    3. The production of foie gras by force feeding geese Anser anser has a long tradition,
    particularly in south west France, but beginning around 30 years ago the Mulard duck, a
    hybrid between the muscovy duck Cairina moschata and the domestic duck Anas
    platyrhynchos, has come to be used extensively (94% of foie gras production in 1995).

    4. Of the three species mentioned in paragraph 3 above, wild members of the domestic goose
    species are often migratory, wild members of the domestic duck are sometimes migratory, but
    wild muscovy ducks are non-migratory.

  • susiemorrow says:

    Dear god! Isn’t it obvious, the happiest birds of all are those not killed for human consumption, christ I get so sick of human beings trying to justify their perverse actions.

  • O.Voron says:

    I see that it’s a painful reading for vegans who consider meat eating a perverse action. On the other hand, the happiest plants must be those which are allowed to flower and go to seed etc and not have their leaves, stems,roots and fruits eaten.
    We all gonna die.

    • susiemorrow says:

      It’s not eating meat, per se, but the production of the meat and the way that animals are treated prior to being killed (and often the way they are killed to for that matter) that disturbs me. PLEASE don’t get on my case for caring! After 33 years of not eating meat I am tired of meat eaters attacking me and getting defensive because i stand by my convictions.. And BTW I have serious problems with just weeding the garden, I am a sensitive and empathic soul, what can I do.

      • O.Voron says:

        I am sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. My only point was that this is a fact of life that in order to live at all we need to kill other living things and there is no way around it.
        If the geese are free range, have plenty of food, no predators, this is as happy a life as they can get (while it lasts).
        However, I find interesting the Russian guy’s observation that people get passionate about gavage and animal well-being in general, but take rather calmly force feeding in American prisons ( or ‘enhanced interrogation’ aka torture, for this matter, according to the recent US government report) as another fact of life 🙂

        • susiemorrow says:

          The Russian bloke’s observation is a glib unfounded remark. Most people I know who want good animal welfare also want good human rights too, pretty much everyone I’ve known over the years who was an animal rights activist was a human rights activist too, they just focussed more on animals because there are plenty of other humans concentrating on the human side.

          You didn’t hurt me, you pissed me off because I am tired and bored with the same view over and over again towards other species. I agree free range is best, of course, but it’s the exception rather than the rule. And yes, there is a food chain, but does it have to be so bloody cruel and do we have to eat so much meat – I think the answer to both is no and we should work towards that.

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