The Controversy of Foie Gras

The menu that I chose is a lunch menu from the St. Francis Hotel in San Fransisco California in 1939. This French menu includes many dishes that seem unfamiliar in modern times and even some that I am unable to distinguish although I speak french fluently. The St. Francis Hotel, today known as the Westin St. Francis, first opened over a century ago in 1904. Throughout the 20th century, it was an extremely popular place to stay among celebrities and actors. This hotel has an extensive history with many notable stories about it, but I would like to focus on the complex history of one of its menu items. “Le Pate de Foie Gras de Strassbourg” is a menu item that would no longer be possible to obtain in California and I will be explaining where it comes from and why it is so controversial.

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Foie gras is French for “fatty liver”, and it is generally the enhanced liver of a duck or goose. This became a popular delicacy during the middle ages; duck and geese were raised and over-fed for the sole purpose of obtaining foie gras. This practice roots back to Ancient Egypt when Egyptians discovered that hunting birds while they were migrating resulted in much more enlarged livers with a richer and buttery texture1. This is due to migratory birds consuming large amounts of food before migration, so their livers are temporarily enlarged from the calories. Once this secret was discovered, geese were domesticated and goose fat was found to have several other benefits, including medicinal properties. There is art that dates back to 2500 BC that depicts the force-feeding of geese and ducks2

Once goose and duck force-feeding farms were established, this practice spread to Greece, then Rome. While Egyptians force-fed the birds to enhance their meat, fat, and livers, the practice of force-feeding them for the sole purpose of obtaining foie gras originated in Rome. Romans called it “jecur ficatum”3 which translates to “fig-stuffed liver”; they were force-fed with mostly figs. Foie gras was then spread to France, where it became widely accepted and popular in the 1500s4. It was spread throughout Europe by Jewish people since this was one of the few types of meat that conformed to their religious dietary restrictions5. France is finally where it gained its name and where it has always been the most popular6.

Freshly-produced foie gras was surprisingly not introduced to the United States until the mid-1980s by Ariane Daguin; before then it could only be purchased in cans7. It became a dish in the US when people returned from traveling to Europe in the late 19th century. By 1939 when this menu was produced, it was a prominent delicacy for the people who could afford it, i.e. celebrities dining at the St. Francis. It generally was served in small pieces with bread or crackers. 

Since the 1980s, foie gras is being produced in the US on goose and duck farms where they are force-fed; generally with corn boiled in fat8. Animal rights activist groups later deemed the force-feeding methods inhumane treatment of animals. Evidence for this cruelty are swollen livers several times their normal size, livers not being able to function properly, difficulty walking, and esophagus damage9. Slowly over time, the practice became more inhumane as much as people could get away with.

If you walked into the Westin St Francis hotel today, you would be unable to order a foie gras dish. In 2004, California created a ban against the production of it that went into effect in 2012. Other than California, New York is the only other state to ban foie gras in the US, and this will not even go into effect until 2022. All over the world animals, right activists are breaking down on foie gras production and it is now banned in many countries, mostly throughout Europe where it has thrived the most. For example, it has been banned in the UK since 2006.

This created a huge controversy because of how many people strongly advocate for foie gras. Many businesses in the industry have been and still are attempting to get state and local bans repealed, but so far they have not been successful. More countries and states will most likely ban foie gras in the future as evidence against it continues to emerge.

I fully agree that foie gras production as it stands today is unethical and should be illegal. I think that at some point in time, the process of creating foie gras was much less harmful than it is now; birds were not force-fed to the point of being immobile with esophagus damage. As technology has advanced, so have techniques for feeding the birds. While they are more effective and convenient, they are also more inhumane and treat animals like products rather than living creatures. The same goes for factory farming and the inhumane treatment of those animals. There is an acceptable balance in the meat industry between treating animals ethically while still making smart decisions economically, yet people often find themselves at one of the extreme sides of the spectrum which is why legal issues ultimately emerge. This also brings up the question of whether “ethical foie gras” is even possible. I think that the answer is no; just because ducks and geese can withstand being overfed to a certain extent without suffering physical damages does not mean they are comfortable. The goal should be to create foie gras without making them feel discomfort on purpose, and if that cannot be done then ethical foie gras is impossible. It would be different if the end result held more importance, but catering to some people’s food preferences is not a good enough reason.

Footnotes:

  1. (Foie Gras History)
  2. (We’ve Been Debating Foie Gras since Ancient Times)
  3. (Origins)
  4.  (Foie Gras History)
  5. (A Short History of Foie Gras)
  6. (Foie Gras History)
  7.  (Foie Gras History) 
  8. (Foie Gras Controversy)
  9. (Issue: Foie Gras)

Sources:

Coletti, A. (2018, January 18). We’ve Been Debating Foie Gras Since Ancient Times. Atlas Obscura. Retrieved from https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/ancient-foie-gras-debate 

A Short History of Foie Gras. Gourmet Foodstore. Retrieved from https://www.gourmetfoodstore.com/history-foie-gras-15165 

Foie Gras Controversy. Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foie_gras_controversy 

History of foie gras. D’Artagnan. Retrieved from https://www.dartagnan.com/foie-gras-history.html

Issue: Foie Gras. Animal Legal Defense Fund. Retrieved from https://aldf.org/issue/foie-gras/

Origins. The Foie Gras. Retrieved from https://thefoiegras.co.uk/foie-gras/origins

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