In cooking, the process of clarification entails straining out extraneous muck from liquids so that they might be pure, clear and ideal for consumption. With this series on food terminology and issues we're attempting to do the same.
“It looks horrible and has a French name – which is already a very bad thing. Nobody needs to eat foie gras and it’s very expensive, so it’s a very easy target,” said Yanay.
Yanay is the General Manager and Vice President of Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Ferndale, New York. The 200-acre farm is the premier producer of foie gras in the United States, and provides the controversial delicacy to top chefs like Thomas Keller and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
In 2004, California passed a law that gave the foie gras industry an eight-year grace period - until July 2012 - to figure out an alternative to force-feeding waterfowl. The bill, SB 1520, was written by Democrat John Burton.
“The time has come for this humane and common-sense law to finally take effect. Many years have passed since the Legislature discussed this important issue. We don't need to re-debate the cruelty of force-feeding. For the sake of animals and the Californians who care about them, we should simply celebrate that the 7 1/2 years of waiting is almost over,” said Burton in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed.
With the July 1 deadline less than a month away, foie gras enthusiasts are scrambling for a repeal.
Part of that effort includes transparency by foie gras producers, by urging skeptics and supporters alike to witness the process first-hand.
“If you are so concerned, come and see it for yourself. You draw your own conclusions,” said Yanay.
Taking his advice, here’s what I found during a recent site visit:
All the ducks at Hudson Valley are Moulard male, a hybrid of male Muscovy and female Pekin ducks. The farm sends its female ducklings to Trinidad to be raised for meat because the males produce a fattier, and thus more profitable, liver.
This all-male practice follows the standards of the Comité Interprofessionnel des Palmipèdes à Foie Gras, a trade association that represents France’s professionals in the “fattened poultry sector.”
“The limiting of the appellation of duck ‘Foie Gras’ to fattened male ducks only, [is] in keeping with tradition but also to improve quality,” said the association.
At three months old, the ducks are transferred from the free-feeding barns where they were hatched and matured to pens where their force-feeding regimen will begin.
Hudson Valley Foie Gras advertises its products as “cage-free.” Under USDA regulations, cage-free does not mean the birds have access to the outdoors, but that they can freely roam within a confined area. Cage-free is not synonymous with free-range.
Here, approximately 11 ducks are stored in each four-by-six-foot, open-topped pen.
The force-feeding procedure, known as “gavage,” involves holding the duck by the neck and dropping pellets of food into what’s known as the duck’s “crop” by a tube. The crop is located in the lower neck area of the duck and is essentially a storage tank for food.
During this stage of production, the ducks are force-fed 10 to 12 ounces of pellets, three times a day. The pellets are a mixture of corn, soybean, oatmeal and added vitamins and minerals.
Each feeding lasts approximately 12 seconds, and is done by the same feeder every day for a maximum of 21 days.
“They’re fed by the same person because they’re more relaxed and under less stress,” said Dr. Lawrence W. Bartholf, a veterinarian on-site during the foie farm tour. Bartholf works independently from the farm, but does often accompany visitors on farm tours and is a New York State Veterinary Medical Society spokesman for the Hudson Valley. He was compensated for accompanying the tour.
At the time of the feeding, the ducks huddled to the corner away from the feeder. After their turn on the feeding tube, they waddled – seemingly unperturbed – away.
“It’s a non-event for these birds because their esophagus is not sensitive like ours. Their esophagus is flexible enough and durable enough that it would tolerate a struggling fish and all its spines,” said Bartholf.
However, animal-rights activists lambast these claims and staunchly assert that force-feeding is inhumane.
“Most injuries caused by tissue damage during handling or tube insertion would result in pain. The oropharyngeal area is particularly sensitive and is physiologically adapted to perform a gag reflex in order to prevent fluids entering the trachea. Force feeding will have to overcome this reflex and hence the birds may initially find this distressing and injury may result,” advised the Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare (SCAHAW).
Before each feeding, the handlers palpate the duck’s throat for the presence of pellets; if they feel the last meal, they will skip the next feeding because the bird didn’t digest the last meal. If pellets are detected, the bird is marked with a blue dot.
Eight hours later, if pellets are still felt in the marked bird at the next feeding, this means the bird has reached its genetic potential for liver size, and it goes to the abattoir, or slaughterhouse.
At the slaughterhouse, the ducks are shocked with electrified water to stun them so that they are rendered unconscious. From there, their throats are slit to allow all the blood to drain from the animal.
“The heart has to continue beating so when the throat is cut, blood pumps out for a time. This is standard in all animal slaughter, although some religious customs preclude stunning. We are not comfortable with that. The bird has to be alive at the point where the throat is cut so the blood pumps out,” said Marcus Henley, the operations manager of Hudson Valley Foie Gras.
“Blood left in the animal will cause spoilage and an animal not properly bled will be identified and rejected by the USDA inspectors. After stunning, the birds never feel pain and do not wake up,” he continued. Waterbath stunning is a common practice in the poultry industry.
From there, the birds are cleaned, plucked and frozen overnight. The next day, the ducks are butchered for the foie gras and the other parts of duck Hudson Valley distributes - like the legs, thighs, breasts and fat.
While the ban in California has become highly publicized, the state is certainly not the first to move forward with such legislation: The production of foie gras is currently prohibited in more than a dozen countries, including Israel, Denmark, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) also does not support the practice.
“The production of fatty liver for foie gras however raises serious animal welfare issues and it is not a practice that is condoned by FAO,” states the organization.
When asked why the ducks would not overfeed themselves naturally, Bartholf said ducks rely on external stimuli for three events: “egg-laying, migration and getting ready for a period of starvation.”
In the controlled environment of the farm, ducks don’t have these natural triggers.
In a recent TED talk, Dan Barber spotlighted a Spanish chef, Eduardo Sousa, who is raising geese for foie gras without force feeding - allowing them to feed freely off his farm’s land and slaughtering the birds right before migration, when the animals have naturally fattened up their livers.
No farm in the United States has successfully replicated this practice and thus, they still rely on force-feeding.
Despite the almost certain probability that the ban will go in effect on July 1, Yanay is convinced the force behind force-feeding will prevail, and the ban will ultimately be overturned.
“We’re going to win. Trust me, we’re going to win,” said Yanay.
Editor's Note: Eatocracy visited Hudson Valley Foie Gras as a guest of D'Artagnan, a vendor of the farm's foie gras.