Foie gras: why top chefs should be ditching this ‘torture-in-a-tin’

By Justin Kerswell

Rarely has foie-gras – and the way it is produced – received so much attention in Britain. This major public interest was sparked by Viva! and French group L214’s investigation in light of footage taken at six farms belonging to producer Ernest Soulard in the Vendee region of France earlier this year.

The spotlight increased significantly because Soulard was a preferred supplier to Gordon Ramsay in Britain. The front page of the Daily Mirror was seemingly enough for him to drop Soulard at lightning speed. However, Ramsay has not yet given a commitment that he will no longer serve foie-gras.

Every year in France, 38 million ducks and geese are force fed obscene amounts of food so that their livers swell painfully to up to ten times their normal size. This is torture marketed as a delicacy – the pain and suffering of millions of birds forgotten amongst the clinking of glasses filled with fine wine. The process is so violent and unnatural that around a million birds die during this period of forced-feeding each year in France alone. Other countries also produce foie-gras, including Hungary, Spain and China.

Foie-gras would be illegal to produce in Britain, yet there is currently nothing controlling its importation into this country. It would be difficult to argue that this does not make a mockery of our sovereign welfare laws.

192 tonnes of foie-gras was imported into the UK in 2010. The UK consumes more French foie-gras than Germany, twice as much as Italy and four times more than Holland. Yet no British supermarket will touch it and recently Amazon dropped it from their online marketplace in response to pressure from Viva!.

Having worked towards a ban on the importation of foie-gras into Britain for the past decade the response I have received from government ministers has been uniform despite their political affiliations. Be they Labour, Lib Dem or Conservative the answer has always been the same: we’d be sued if we banned it. In other words they are afraid of a trade war with France. Yet, current EU laws do allow countries to limit trade if it can be proven to cause animal suffering or outrages public morality. You may be hard pressed to find a trade that does both with such unenviable gusto as that in foie-gras. However, political cowardice could be thwarted if enough people back a campaign for an importation ban.

And what of the chefs that currently serve foie-gras? There is a prevailing libertarian, not to mention arrogant, attitude that whatever tastes good is OK. That society and politics should not impinge on one’s right to enjoy food. However, society and our collective laws are key. By serving something that is illegal to produce in this country are you not already morally and ethically without foundation? Not all chefs think this way, as BBC Masterchef’s banning of it has shown.

Another excuse by foie-gras apologists is that chickens have it far worse in this country. Viva! is a vegan organisation and we believe that only way to end animal suffering is to not eat animal products. It is true that nearly all chickens killed for meat in Britain have an appalling, short six week life locked away in intensive sheds. However, it is unlikely that those who make this comparison actually avoid chicken meat.

It is also true that ducks – and nearly 98 per cent of birds used in foie-gras production in France are ducks – spend the majority of the first two months of their lives outdoors. Indeed, pick any foie-gras producer’s website and all you will see is images of white ducks in fields. However, crucially it is what happens to them when they are removed from fields and put into cages that is the issue. It is these last two weeks of a bird’s life, of force-feeding and misery, that is the most problematic. Some foie-gras producers try and brush this aside by saying the majority of the animals’ life is a free-range one. Surely that is akin to trying to excuse political prisoners being water-boarded two weeks out of a three month sentence because the rest of the time they have access to an outside patio.

French foie-gras cannot be produced without forced-feeding. That is enshrined by French law. This barbaric practice is endemic and happens in farms across France. Ernest Soulard is not one bad apple. When faced with the horrific images famous Danish chef Thomas Rode realised this and dropped just not Soulard, but all foie-gras. Danish food importer Løgismose – which had been selling it since the 1970s – did the same.

By dumping just Soulard foie-gras from his restaurants, Gordon Ramsay is simply sidestepping the issue. If he has the courage of his convictions he will join the growing chorus of disapproval and drop this ‘torture in a tin’ once and for all.

Justin Kerswell is head of campaigns at Viva! 

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