After a ban was upheld by a Californian appeal court this past week, the luxury pate known as foie gras remains the bogeyman of the food industry, at least in that state. But being one of the largest US states, California’s ban carries weight. (Add it to the fact that India banned it in 2014, as have several countries throughout South America, Asia, and Europe).
Not here in Canada. In fact, Quebec is one of North America’s largest producers of foie gras.
California’s court’s ruling is largely due to the practice of gavage, which sees ducks and geese force-fed with a pipe, their movements restricted in order to enlarge their livers and make them buttery-smooth. It’s considered by activists — and some courts — to be cruel and inhumane; some farmers and chefs say otherwise.
This long-running debate over foie gras is often characterized as either/or — that there is no middle ground.
And yet, isn’t there?
Without weighing into claims on both sides, there does appear to be an alternative — and it’s being done right in Ottawa’s backyard.
If you’ve eaten at some of the restaurants regularly highlighted by Ottawa Magazine, then you’ve probably read the name Mariposa Farm on the menu. Just east of Ottawa in Plantaganet, the farm is famous for their Barbarie ducks, but it also has a flock of a hundred Embden geese, which at the end of their lives become – in part – foie gras. (Actually, the more correct term for their version is blonde goose liver.)
What you may not have realized is that Mariposa is one of a few businesses in the world to produce foie gras naturally. Mariposa’s Ian Walker and Suzanne Lavoie do not restrict the movement of their geese, nor are they force-fed. Instead, they roam free, eating as much corn as they want, which the animals do in the wild, increasing their caloric intake as migration time approaches. The geese’s proclivity for gluttony also enlarges their livers and makes them fatty — perfect for foie gras.
Although this natural method doesn’t yield the quantity of foie gras most farms produce, it is “a thousand times easier,” Walker says. Restricting geese and force-feeding them is more work then letting them eat at their own pace. Plus, it appeases some animal rights activists who routinely target foie gras producers — though Walker says alleged animal cruelty does not factor into Mariposa’s decision to raise geese naturally.
Mariposa’s methods (also used elsewhere in the world) prove that the alternative is viable. There are a few snags, however. As noted, the natural method doesn’t produce vast quantities of the stuff and as such Mariposa’s blonde goose liver pate costs more than factory-produced foie gras. Plus, Quebec has tightened its rules around the confinement of birds since the mid-00s in response to the threat of avian contagions, making the free-range option more difficult.
But foie gras is not a basic food stuff. We’re not talking about the mass production of eggs or chickens — that’s another conversation. (Indeed, Walker wonders why so much attention – in his perspective – goes towards foie gras when consumers often don’t know where their eggs or meat come from. But, again, it’s not an either/or debate: one can be critical of the foie gras-producing industry at the same time as being critical of the poultry industry; something Morgan Spurlock, famed for his film Super Size Me, is doing with his newest film Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!)
Simply put: foie gras is a luxury food item, one that people are already willing to pay a premium price for. Since foie gras is not a food staple and there is a viable, less cruel, natural alternative, the potential for animal suffering definitely outweighs consumer demand for a cheap luxury product.
Maybe Canada can show the pate-eating world (and the animal rights activists) that there is a middle ground, and ban gavage?