A piece of foie gras on potato risotto

It's banned in many countries for being inhumane, but now 'ethical' versions of the delicacy are appearing. Sophie Morris wonders if it's really cleaning up its act.

James Martinez imports ethical foie gras into the UK, supplying a number of speciality food stores around the country. From the age of eight he grew up in France, the home and the heart of the fatty goose or duck liver paté called foie gras, a luxury product that has very publicly fallen out of favour. It is outlawed in some US states and by a number of British councils, because of its cruel method of production. The force-feeding of ducks and geese is illegal more than 15 countries, including Britain, Germany and Italy, though importing and selling the product is permitted in most places.

"Gavage" is the French name for the process used to make the unctuous paté. It is a method of force-feeding that causes the livers of the geese and ducks to swell to eight or 10 times their normal size. A rubber tube or steel pipe is pushed down their throats and the feed delivered to the stomach four times a day, for up to 18 days.

Some 97 per cent of the world's foie gras is produced in this way. During the latter part of the gavage, the bird will probably suffer respiratory problems akin to being smothered for days on end. Once they die, the swollen livers – essentially an organ in an advanced state of disease – are sliced up and served unadulterated to anyone with the taste for it.

Does foie gras taste good? Well yes, I recall from a meal many years ago that it does, but not nearly approaching good enough to merit the suffering. You'll find few supermarkets or delicatessens stocking it today.

Consequently a slew of "ethical" foie gras products have appeared to plug the gap in fatty liver patés. Martinez, with his company Martinez Fine Foods, supplies foie gras from a Gascony farm, La Contesse Auzanaise.

By French law, foie gras can only be labelled as such if the product is engorged duck or goose liver and not mixed with other fats, but this foie gras is produced along kinder lines than gavage. The birds live longer, for up to 125 days, and during this time roam free-range in large fields. When September comes, instead of being force-fed polenta pumped with hormones through a tube, these birds are fed whole grain by hand, for 20 seconds twice a day, for up to 13 days.

There are few producers left who make foie gras in this traditional and more humane way, explains Martinez, because food conglomerates buy up the farms one by one and impose the rigorous gavage system to speed up production. This means that they can still slap the original producer's label on the jars of foie gras.

Of course these birds are still being overfed, but ducks and geese do overeat naturally in the autumn, to put on fat to carry them through the winter and migration period. Exploiting this was how foie gras first came into production.

One Spanish producer, Eduardo de Sousa, makes an ethical foie gras that relies on the fowls' own gluttony alone. This means that he can only harvest the foie gras once a year, making an expensive item even pricier. Patería de Sousa, as the substitute is known, has been produced on the de Sousa farm for almost 100 years, but the family only recently developed it into a commercial product. Five years ago it won the Coup de Coeur, a coveted French food prize.

Lee Smyth has stocked Martinez's La Contesse Auzanaise ethical foie gras in his north London delicatessen, Truffles, for six months, and sells 180g jars for £31.50. "I'm not a fan of the usual foie gras and would never stock it," he says.

Waitrose also has a version of ethical foie gras, which it calls (and has trademarked) "faux gras". It is made from free range and naturally fattened British goose or duck liver and blended with more fat into a creamy paté. The duck retails at £5.99 for 175g, the goose at £7.99 for 185g.

Animal rights campaigners, however, maintain that there is no such thing as an ethical foie gras. "Calling something ethical is a marketing ploy," says Tony Wardle, associate director of Vegetarians International Voice for Animals (Viva).

The word ethical has a broad and loose meaning. It is attached to many consumer items, in particular food products. Yet, like its well-meaning bedfellow "sustainable", the precise meaning of "ethical" is unspecified in most cases.

Meat and dairy products have had their moments under the ethical spotlight, and fish products are rarely out of the headlines. In particular, ethical caviar, sardines and anchovies have been marketed in recent years.

"People produce ethical food choices to take advantage and cash in on the growing awareness of these issues," says Wardle. "I am extremely dubious of the word 'ethical'. Take sardines, for example, caught from 'sustainable' fisheries. I used to be a fisherman, and it's impossible to monitor the oceans."

Producing fake versions of unethical products, as with fur and sausages, may also fuel demand for the real thing. Perhaps this is why Fortnum & Mason refuses to take foie gras off its shelves – because business is booming, despite the many famous and high profile names who support a complete ban on its sale in the UK.

Sir Roger Moore is one such campaigner, and the "foie gras ambassador" for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta). In the run-up to Christmas he petitioned Fortnum & Mason, along with Dame Vera Lynn, Bill Oddie and Twiggy, to stop stocking it. On 22 December, the former Big Brother contestant Chantelle Houghton was handing out jars of faux gras, not Waitrose's product but an entirely vegetarian choice.

"Fortnum & Mason has a choice," announced Moore. "It can either highlight the fact that it is one of the last British department stores to sell a horribly cruel product, or it can finally pull foie gras from its shelves once and for all. If Fortnum & Mason wants to continue to trade on its 'Britishness' and high standards, it should adhere fully to British law and stop paying French farmers to force-feed geese for foie gras."

It turns out that Fortnums is not the only upmarket store selling foie gras. The week before Christmas, the Evening Standard revealed that Selfridges was also selling foie gras, under the counter from the Jack O'Shea meat concession. Selfridges said he was acting without management's knowledge and the butcher may now be removed from the store.

One problem with ethical foie gras, if you're happy to accept this label, is that supply could never meet a surge in demand. According to Martinez, most of the few remaining traditional producers are too small to export their foie or guarantee a supply.

Shall we just make a deal to stick to chicken liver paté instead? It's hardly glamorous, but then neither is sticking a steel pipe down a duck's neck.