Foie gras

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Food and agriculture

Pâté de foie gras (right) with pickled pear.
Pâté de foie gras (right) with pickled pear.

Foie gras [fwɑ gʁɑ] (French for "fat liver") is the fattened liver of a duck or goose that has been overfed. Along with truffles, foie gras is one of the greatest delicacies in French cuisine—it is very rich and buttery, with a delicate flavour unlike that of a regular duck or goose liver.

All animal rights organizations, and nearly all animal welfare organizations regard the production as cruelty to animals because of the force-feeding and the health consequences resultant from enlarged livers. Foie gras production is illegal in several countries and in several U.S. jurisdictions.


A bas relief depiction of overfeeding geese
A bas relief depiction of overfeeding geese

Ancient times

As early as 2500 BC, it is believed that the Egyptians sought the fattened livers of migratory birds as a delicacy. They soon learned that many birds could be fattened through overfeeding and began the practice of fattening geese by overfeeding them. In the necropolis of Saqqara, in the tomb of Mereruka, an important royal official, there is a bas relief scene wherein slaves grasp geese around the necks in order to push food down their throats. At the side stand tables piled with more food pellets, probably roasted grain, and a flask for moistening the feed before force-feeding it to the geese.

The practice of geese-fattening spread from Egypt to the Mediterranean. The earliest reference to fattened geese is from the 5th century BC Greek poet Cratinus, who wrote of geese-fatteners, yet Egypt maintained its reputation as the source for fattened geese. When the Spartan king Agesilaus visited Egypt in 361 BC, he was greeted with fattened geese and calves, the riches of Egyptian farmers.

It was not until the Roman period, however, that foie gras is mentioned as a distinct food, which the Romans named iecur ficatum; Iecur means liver and ficatum derives from ficus, meaning fig in Latin. Pliny the Elder credits the Roman gastronome Apicius (to whom is attributed the sole, surviving Roman cookbook), with feeding dried figs to geese in order to enlarge their livers; hence, the term iecur ficatum, fig-stuffed liver; feeding figs to enlarge a goose's liver may derive from Hellenistic Alexandria, since much of Roman luxury cuisine is of Greek inspiration. Ficatum was so closely associated with animal liver that it became the root word for "liver" in each of these languages: foie in French, hígado in Spanish, fígado in Portuguese, ficat in Romanian, and fegato in Italian, all meaning "liver".

Postclassical Europe

After the fall of the Roman empire, goose liver temporarily vanished from European cuisine. Yet it is claimed that Gallic farmers preserved the foie gras tradition until the rest of Europe rediscovered it centuries later; however this theory lacks evidence, since the medieval French peasant's meats were mainly pig and sheep. More likely, the tradition was preserved by the Jews, who learned the method of enlarging a goose's liver during the Roman colonisation of Israel. The Jews carried this culinary knowledge as they migrated farther north and west to Europe.

The Judaic dietary law, Kashrut, forbade lard as a cooking medium, and butter, too, was proscribed as an alternative since it also prohibited mixing meat and dairy products. Jewish cuisine used olive oil in the Mediterranean, and sesame oil in Babylonia, but neither cooking medium was easily available in Western and Central Europe, so poultry fat, which could be abundantly produced by overfeeding geese, was substituted in their stead. The delicate taste of the goose's liver soon was appreciated; witnessed by Hans Wilhelm Kirchhof of Kassel, who in 1562 wrote that the Jews raise fat geese and particularly love their livers. Some Rabbis were concerned with the kashrut dietary complications consequent to overfeeding geese, because Jewish law prohibits eating an animal that cannot live for more than twelve months. The chasam sofer, Rabbi Moses Sofer, contended that, even though the animal might die within twelve months, it is not a treyf animal as none of its limbs is damaged. This matter remained a debated topic in Jewish dietary law until the Jewish taste for goose liver declined in the 19th century. Another kashrut matter, still a problem today, is that even properly slaughtered and inspected meat must be drained of blood before being considered fit to eat. Usually, salting achieves that; however, as liver is regarded as "(almost) wholly blood", broiling is the only way of kashering. Properly broiling a foie gras—and preserving its delicate taste—is an arduous endeavour few engage seriously.

Gentile gastronomes began appreciating fattened goose liver, which they could buy in the local Jewish ghetto of their cities. In 1570, Bartolomeo Scappi, chef de cuisine to Pope Pius V, published his cookbook Opera, wherein he describes that "the liver of [a] domestic goose raised by the Jews is of extreme size and weighs [between] two and three pounds." In 1581, Marx Rumpolt of Mainz, chef to several German nobles, published the massive cookbook Kochbuch, describing that the Jews of Bohemia produced livers weighing more than three pounds; he lists recipes for it—including one for goose liver mousse. János Keszei, chef to the court of Michael Apafi, the prince of Transylvania, included foie gras recipes in his 1680 cookbook A New Book About Cooking, instructing cooks to "envelop the goose liver in a calf's thin skin, bake it and prepare [a] green or [a] brown sauce to accompany it. I used goose liver fattened by Bohemian Jews, its weight was more than three pounds. You may also prepare a mush of it."

Main producers

France is the leading producer and consumer of duck and goose foie gras. In 2005, the country produced 18,450 tonnes of foie gras (75% of the world's estimated total production of 23,500 tonnes) of which 96% was duck liver and the rest goose liver. Total French consumption of foie gras was 19,000 tonnes in 2005. Approximately 30,000 people are members of the French foie gras industry, with 90% of them residing in the Périgord ( Dordogne), the Midi-Pyrénées régions in the southwest, and ( Alsace). The European Union recognizes the foie gras produced according to traditional farming methods (label rouge) in southwestern France with a geographical indication of provenance.

Hungary is the world's second-greatest foie gras producer and the largest exporter (1,920 tonnes in 2005). France is the principal market for Hungarian foie gras; mainly exported raw. Approximately 30,000 Hungarian goose farmers are dependent on the foie gras industry. French food companies spice, process, and cook the foie gras so it may be sold as a French product in its domestic and export markets.

Bulgaria produced 1,500 tonnes of foie gras in 2005; Québec, Canada, also has a thriving foie gras industry; Canadian chefs use Québec foie gras as a demonstration of national pride.

Production methods

Foie gras production involves force-feeding birds more food than they would eat in the wild, and much more than they would voluntarily eat domestically. The feed, usually corn boiled with fat (to facilitate ingestion), deposits large amounts of fat in the liver, thereby producing the buttery consistency sought by the gastronome.

Physiology and preparation

The geese and ducks used in foie gras production are, generally, Toulouse geese, and sterile hybrid ducks— Cairina moschata drakes crossed with female domestic ducks ( Anas platyrhynchos).

Geese and ducks are omnivorous, and, like many birds, have expansive throats allowing them to store large amounts of food, either whole or pre-digested, in the oesophagus while awaiting digestion in the stomach. In the wild this dilation allows them to swallow large foodstuffs, such as a whole fish, for a later, long digestion. Wild geese may consume 300 grams of protein and another 800 grams of grasses per day. Farmed geese allowed to graze on carrots adapt to eat 100 grams of protein, but may consume up to 2500 grams of the carrots per day. A wild duck may double its weight in the autumn, storing fat throughout much of its body and especially on the liver, in preparation for winter migration.

The geese or ducks used in foie gras production are generally free range for the first 12 weeks, feeding on grasses that toughen the oesophagus. While still free roaming they are gradually introduced to a high starch diet that by itself leads to about half of the enlarged liver's size. The next feeding phase, which the French call gavage or finition d'engraissement, or "completion of fattening", involves forced daily ingestion of controlled amounts of feed for 12 to 15 days with ducks and for 15 to 18 days with geese. During this phase ducks are usually fed twice daily while geese are fed up to 4 times daily.


In modern production, the bird is fed a controlled amount of feed, depending on the stage of the fattening process, its weight, and the amount of feed it last ingested. At the start of production, a bird might be fed a dry weight of 250 grams of food per day, and up to 1,000 grams (in dry weight) by the end of the process. The actual amount of food force-fed is much greater, since the birds are fed a mash composed of about 53% dry and 47% liquid (by weight).

The feed is administered using a funnel fitted with a long tube (20–30 cm long), which forces the feed into the animal's oesophagus; if an auger is used, the feeding takes about 45 to 60 seconds; if a pneumatic system is used, the feeding takes about 2 to 3 seconds. During feeding, care is taken to avoid damaging the bird's esophagus, which could cause it injury or death.


An entire foie gras (partly prepared for a terrine).
An entire foie gras (partly prepared for a terrine).
A slice of a solid piece of foie gras.
A slice of a solid piece of foie gras.
Pâté de foie gras served picnic-style with a Sauternes wine and bread.
Pâté de foie gras served picnic-style with a Sauternes wine and bread.

In France, foie gras, exists in different, legally-defined presentations, from the expensive to the cheap:

  • foie gras entier (entire foie gras), made of one or two whole liver lobes; either cooked (cuit), semi-cooked (mi-cuit), or fresh (frais);
  • foie gras, made of pieces of livers reassembled together;
  • bloc de foie gras, a fully-cooked, molded block composed of 98% or more foie gras; if termed avec morceaux ("with pieces"), it must contain at least 50% foie gras pieces for goose, and 30% for duck.

Additionally, there exist pâté de foie gras; mousse de foie gras (both must contain 50% or more foie gras); parfait de foie gras (must contain 75% or more foie gras); and other preparations (no legal obligation established).

Fully cooked preparations are generally sold in either glass containers or metal cans for long-term preservation. Whole, fresh foie gras is usually unavailable, except in some producers' markets in the producing regions. Frozen whole foie gras sometimes is sold in French supermarkets.

Generally, French preparations of foie gras are over low heat (terrine), as too much fat melts from the traditional goose foie gras. The American palate, used to the more accessible duck foie gras, has more recipes and dish preparations for serving that foie gras hot, rather than cool or cold. The recent (in French culinary tradition) introduction of duck foie gras has resulted in some recipes returning to France from America. In Hungary, goose foie gras traditionally is fried in goose fat, which is then poured over the foie gras and left to cool. It also is eaten warm, after being fried or roasted, with some chefs smoking the foie gras over a cherry wood fire. In other parts of the world foie gras is served in exotic dishes such as foie gras sushi or alongside steak tartare.

Foie gras may be flavored with truffles or liquors such as armagnac. It is commonly served accompanied with crusty or toasted bread. It is often served with a dessert wine such as Sauternes, as the rich, sweet flavours go well together; classic wine and food matching; some diners prefer it with a dry white wine, such as those from Alsace; accompaniments may include onion jam.


Foie gras is a luxury dish. Many in France only consume foie gras on special occasions, such as Christmas or New Year's Day eve réveillon dinners, though the recent increased availability of foie gras has made it a less exceptional dish. In some areas of France foie gras is a year round pleasure.

Duck foie gras is the cheaper and, since a change of production methods in the 1950s, by far the most common kind. The taste of duck foie gras is often referred to as musky with a subtle bitterness. Goose foie gras is noted for being less gamey and smoother.


Goose being fed through a pipe during production of foie gras.
Goose being fed through a pipe during production of foie gras.

Some contend that raising geese and ducks and the method of feeding the geese and ducks is cruel. They insist that feeding the animals results in unnatural effects on the birds' bodies including livers swollen to many times their normal size, impaired liver function, expansion of the abdomen making it difficult for birds to walk, and death if the force feeding is continued and that feeding methods can cause scarring of the oesophagus. After political pressure from organizations lobbying for animal rights, a few jurisdictions have banned gavage or, as in the case of the City of Chicago, the sale of foie gras. Chicago is considering overturning this ban.

Late in 2003, a French coalition of animal rights groups published the Proclamation for the Abolition of the Gavage, claiming that the practice of forced feeding is already illegal based on existing animal protection laws in France and the European Union. However, these laws leave much for interpretation. The Council of the European Union issued Council Directive 98/58/EC on 20 July 1998 concerning the protection of farm animals. It stipulates that animal "owners or keepers take all reasonable steps to ensure the welfare of animals under their care and to ensure that those animals are not caused any unnecessary pain, suffering or injury."

The Report of the EU Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare on Welfare Aspects of the Production of Foie Gras in Ducks and Geese, adopted 16 December 1998, is an 89-page review of studies from several producing countries. It "concludes that force feeding, as currently practised, is detrimental to the welfare of the birds." It notes that animal death rates increase by a factor of ten to twenty during the two-week forced feeding period. Also, while the consequences of force feeding in birds are reversible, the "level of steatosis should be considered pathological."

The EU report notes that continued force feeding leads to early death of the animal. It also recognizes that producers do not put their birds livers into a pathological state. The timing of liver fattening is carefully controlled so the animal is slaughtered before it becomes a health hazard. An animal that stops the forced feeding process returns to its normal weight. Producers, and the EU report, also answer the criticism of increased mortality by noting that the overall mortality rate of ducks and geese in foie gras production is much less than that of farm raised chickens and turkeys.

Most foie gras producers do not consider their methods cruel, insisting that it is a natural process exploiting the animals' natural features. Producers argue that wild ducks and geese naturally ingest large amounts of whole food and gain weight before migration. Foie gras producers also contend that geese and ducks do not have a gag reflex, and therefore do not find force feeding uncomfortable. Michael Ginor, owner of Hudson Valley Foie Gras and author of Foie Gras... A Passion, claims his birds come to him and says this is important because "a stressed or hurt bird won't eat and digest well or produce a foie gras."

Some of the physiological claims by producers are contradicted by the EU report. In response to the gag reflex claim, the report states, "The oropharyngeal area is particularly sensitive and is physiologically adapted to perform a gag reflex in order to prevent fluids entering the trachea. Force feeding will have to overcome this reflex and hence the birds may initially find this distressing and injury may result." Some critics argue that the birds would be better served sedated before being fed.

Industry groups including CIFOG, and researchers at INRA affirm that forced feeding is not a cruel procedure and even that animals appreciate this treatment. The EU committee carried out several tests designed to detect pain or distress by looking at blood hormones and all of them were inconclusive or without any measurable difference to similarly raised animals. The committee did not observe any signs that animals appreciated being force fed, and observed that ducks attempted to move away when their feeder entered the room.


The production and sale of foie gras is reportedly illegal in Israel, with prohibiting legislation pending in others. In August 2003, the Supreme Court of Israel declared foie gras production a form of cruelty to animals and made it illegal, effective March 2005. On 29 September 2004, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a state law banning the production and sale of foie gras made from the livers of force-fed ducks and geese, effective in the year 2012, nevertheless, the Californian law would allow the production and sale of foie gras produced by methods not considered cruel to animals. It is assumed that the California farmer will be able to prove his methods humane, especially since veterinarians agree with him. Similar legislation is pending in New York state. California and New York are currently the only U.S. states producing foie gras but it is sold in all states. Moreover, on 26 April 2006, the City Council of Chicago voted to make Chicago the first United States city banning the sale of foie gras, effective 22 August 2006. Several chefs have filed suit, and the City Council is considering overturning the ban which generated outrage across the city.

Force feeding is prohibited in the following places, although the sale of foie gras is not forbidden in:

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