When even the French turn up their noses at the controversial delicacy, you know it’s serious.
France has placed a temporary ban on foie gras, but the reason for halting production may not be what you think: A case of bird flu (an H5N1 strain) was detected on a farm in the Dordogne region of Southern France last November, and the area’s producers would like to avoid a wider outbreak. The government has placed a ban on the production of foie gras for three months this summer—in fact, no ducks or geese will be allowed to be kept in slaughterhouses until August. This is estimated to result in the temporary unemployment of over 4,000 workers, and a shortage of 9 million ducks (in addition to foie gras) at market.
There’s a dark irony to the ban coming now, in response to public health concerns, when animal rights advocates have been banging the drum to outlaw foie gras for decades. As you likely know, foie gras production involves a grim practice called gavage, which involves force-feeding birds with a tube leading into the stomach. The goal is to fatten the liver in a way that traditional feeding cannot — these engorged livers weigh five times what they normally would. This leads to foie’s distinctively rich flavor and texture.
A handful of global foie producers (like this one in Spain or this one in upstate New York) claim that they have worked out a kinder, gentler gavage, but these are certainly the global exception. In France especially, the majority of foie producers are large-scale agricultural concerns, not unlike corporate poultry plants in the U.S. Numerous countries have outlawed foie gras production due to its force-feeding practices, and California placed a ban on serving the delicacy in 2014 before it was deemed unconstitutional.
There seemed little risk of France ever implementing its own ban — foie gras is one of their most indelible items of cultural significance. It’s actually written into national law there: Foie gras belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France. That said, public health concerns may trump France’s fierce culinary pride; if baguettes were spreading syphilis, those would have to go too.
"I think it is more dangerous for small producers who can not ensure the future as easily as the big companies," said Marie-Pierre Tamagnon, press officer with the Interprofession des Vins de Bergerac et de Duras. "But the essential thing is to protect them because they meet high standards of quality (home grown cereals for feeding, for example) and consumers should keep buying their products from them."
Gazing at one of their empty barns, French foie producer Florence Lasserre was circumspect: "Usually it's full here, and it feels a bit lonely now, but the main thing is that the virus doesn't return." But this isn’t the first time France has been embroiled in a tug-o-war between health risk and culinary heritage. Over 50 different kinds of traditional French cheeses have disappeared from the market over the past 30 years, mostly due to the ongoing public health debate about raw (a.k.a. unpasteurized) milk. The ever-vanishing fromage has become such an issue that even Prince Charles has taken a stand. (Oh, and trying to get raw milk cheese in the U.S.? Good luck.)
France has, thankfully, had relatively few cases of large-scale contamination over the past 20 years (a 2012 olive-almond tapenade botulism scare being a notable exception), with front-end due-diligence a painful, but necessary, step to avoid potential disaster. If nothing else, France values its foie gras—and producers. The French Ministry of Agriculture has announced that it will compensate farmers for their estimated loss, upwards of €130 million. At the very least, it’s always good to know the government has your back.