Force-feeding is a painful and dangerous practice of feeding a human or an animal against its will. The French term gavage (meaning “to gorge”) is the use of a plastic feeding tube passed through the nose or mouth into the stomach with the feeding substance. While force-feeding of humans is considered as an act of torture and is banned by the United Nations Convention Against Torture, for animals in foie gras production it is the norm.
A common misconception is that force feeding is ‘traditional’ or a necessary step to make foie gras. In fact, it is perfectly possible to make foie gras without force-feeding. The reason why it became common practice is because, as is usually the case, high productivity has been prioritised over animal welfare.
The usual procedure is that once they reach a certain age, the ducks and geese are moved to cages and subjected to force-feeding 2-3 times a day for up to five weeks. With the abnormally large amount of food that is inserted into their throats in these few weeks, their livers grow to more than ten times their normal size (see image below), until they are deemed fatty enough to be sent to slaughter.
What does EU legislation say about this?
Ironically, a major incentive for the foie gras industry to make force-feeding a common practice is EU legislation. The EU Regulation on marketing standards for poultry meat defines the minimum liver weights for the livers of ducks (300g) and geese (400g) that can be used for foie gras production. The problem is that such weights simply cannot be reached without recurring to force-feeding - thus making it de facto mandatory.
The requirement of minimum liver weights were arbitrarily introduced for the first time in 1991 without any support of independent scientific studies or assessment of their impact on animal welfare, consumer choice, and internal competition in the EU.
This regulation is therefore in open contradiction with Directive 58/98 concerning the protection of animals kept for farming purposes where it states (point 14 of the ANNEX) that “Animals must be fed a wholesome diet which is appropriate to their age and species and which is fed to them in sufficient quantity to maintain them in good health and satisfy their nutritional needs. No animal shall be provided with food or liquid in a manner, nor shall such food or liquid contain any substance, which may cause unnecessary suffering or injury.”
Although today only five out of 27 Member States allow force-feeding (France, Hungary, Bulgaria, Spain and the Belgian region of Wallonia), foie gras produced with force-feeding can still be imported and sold anywhere in the EU. And while there are producers making foie gras without force feeding, the current regulation does not allow them to lawfully market their produce as “foie gras” if it does not attain the abnormally large sizes required.
A simple solution
While FOUR PAWS considers foie gras as an unnecessary product and force-feeding a cruel practice that have no place in today's society, the highly contentious nature of the topic means that a total ban is not foreseeable in the near future.
Nevertheless, there is a simple solution that does not require the application of a ban.
Recently, the European Commission launched a public consultation on poultry meat marketing standards which saw overwhelming support to remove the minimum liver weight requirements for foie gras. Of the total 2,245 inputs from all Member States, around 90% of them asked for the deletion of the two lines (Art. 1, point 3) establishing the minimum weights:
By simply deleting those two lines, farmers that apply more animal welfare friendly practices would be able to market their products more easily and allow consumers to choose products that are free from the cruel practice of force-feeding, and ultimately drive the change.