Since last spring I’ve made an effort to visit as many food sources as possible. I’ve been to farms aplenty as well as to a number of food processing plants including a chicken processor, a fish processor, a beef processor, a gluten-free cookie factory, a cheese maker’s plant and a few others. While I learned something at every venue, one of my most enlightening visits was to foie du canard producers La Ferme Palmex.
I love the taste of foie gras and have cooked it and eaten it many, many times; however, I always had a lingering concern about the process of gavage, which is the feeding ritual (often called force feeding) that transforms a web-footed bird’s regular-sized liver into a buttery, yummy lobe of deliciousness.
I visited the brood farm, the gavage barn and the Palmex processing plant. While alive, the birds I visited were kept in clean, orderly conditions at both the brood hen farm and in the gavage barn; while the ducks are free range at the brood farm, they are isolated in pens in the gavage barn. Benoit Cuchet, president of La Ferme Palmex, explained that this isolation is necessary to reduce stress among the ducks. In fact, it prevents the ducks from establishing a pecking order that leads the more aggressive ducks to attack and bully their meeker neighbours.
In the end, I came away feeling relieved about how foie gras gets from a Quebec farm to my Toronto table. Here’s a summary of what I learned about gavage:
• The process of creating foie gras is often criticized for being cruel; however, the same physical changes occur each year about this time in nature when geese and ducks build up fat reserves in their livers and subcutaneous tissues to nourish themselves when they migrate to warmer climates.
• Before the commercial gavage process begins, ducks are allowed to eat and drink any time they like; then, two weeks before gavage commences, their caregivers give them just one hearty meal each day. This change in eating pattern causes their crops (the expanded, muscular pouches near the bird’s gullet or throat that is used to temporarily store food) to begin to open up so that gavage can be a comfortable experience for them.
• Every day before feeding, the barn hands — supervised by Pascal Fleury, the company’s animal welfare specialist — go through a specific set of steps: First they regulate the temperature and humidity of the barn to keep the ducks comfortable. Then, they test the PH content of the water to make sure it is no more and no less than 7.5 to ensure that when it’s blended with the ground corn-based feed the ducks eat that it will be easily digested. Lastly, they check each bird to make sure their crops are open. (If necessary, they will modify an individual duck’s diet to ensure that as the liver grows that the duck is comfortable and healthy.)
• My biggest surprise occurred when I saw how eager the ducks were to see the embuc (that’s the feeding apparatus used to deposit food into the duck’s crop) and to be fed from it. I’d always worried about that part of the process, yet, it was obviously not a worry to the birds! Likewise, the feeding time was so short: it took literally less than 10 seconds for Pascal to feed each bird with the electric embuc he’s moving around in the picture above.
How does my report make you feel? Do you find these details reassuring or disconcerting?