As Christmas draws near, gavage, the force-feeding of geese for the production of foie gras, is in full swing in France. Foie gras, considered a culinary delicacy, is made from the liver of a specially fattened duck or goose. Goose liver foie gras, supposedly the best, traditionally graces French tables at Christmas.
A controversial Christmas delicacy
Gavage, which involves regular force-feeding of maize to the birds, is hotly contested by animal rights groups, who maintain that it is a cruel and inhumane treatment of animals. Since 1997, the number of European countries producing foie gras has halved, as countries have introduced laws against gavage. France, however, continues to shrug in the face of the Stop Gavage campaign, and is today by far the largest producer – and consumer – of foie gras worldwide.
“A force-fed animal doesn’t suffer”
Nonetheless, not every foie gras producer wants a photojournalist poking their nose into the goose shed. On a trip to the southwestern foie-gras heartland of France, my reportage proposal was turned down several times, before I came across Bernard Lavergne, a farmer, conseiller municipal of his local village and independent producer of foie gras. His high quality foie gras products are produced without any artificial additives and are sold to private clients and restaurants nationwide. Bernard, a vocal advocate for the commercial production of foie gras, was happy for me to photograph his gavage process.
He was keen to point out that the principle of force feeding is based on natural processes in migratory geese, who stock up for their long distance flights without food. He insists that force-fed animals don’t suffer.
“You need to understand that if animals suffered, they wouldn’t get fat. They would die. They simply wouldn’t absorb the food.”
Low lighting and music
Bernard’s geese have a pretty short life though. He buys them in at 16 weeks old and force-feeds them 3 times a day, every day, for 3 weeks. They are then culled and their meat and livers are prepared in the room next door.
When we entered the goose shed, it took a while for my eyes to adjust to the dim light. Fluorescent strips gave only just enough light to conduct the force-feeding and, apart from a small vent that let in a little fresh air, the great outdoors was very much kept out. A radio played constantly to disguise external noises from the farm outside.
All this is to keep the birds calm. An excited goose could easily injure itself in the small cage in which the birds are kept. Welfare reasons aside, haematomas are to be avoided at all costs, as they make the goose meat unsellable.
It only takes a minute
The act of feeding, if you can call it that, is rapid. Bernard takes hold of a goose, slides its neck down a gap in the door of their cage, forces open its beak and inserts a feeding tube into the bird’s oesophagus. A motorised machine pumps the required quantity of maize, mixed with hot water, oil and salt, straight down the tube. Bernard simply holds the gun and massages the goose’s neck to encourage ingestion. The whole process takes less than a minute.
At the start of the force-feeing programme, each goose receives 300g of maize per day. This rises little by little to 1.4 kg by the end of the period.
An average goose weighs between 7 and 8 kg.
Food for thought.