Food and Drink: A myth rammed down our throats: Force feeding geese for foie gras may look cruel, but Joanna Blythman reckons our factory-farmed chickens lead a far worse life

IT IS the sort of charming French landscape that the British adore: the deep south-west of France, where Armagnac country meets the pine forest of the Landes. Wood smoke hangs in the air. Undulating narrow roads wind through hamlets and villages. The homes are less houses than smallholdings, each with its woodpile, a beaten-up van and a muddy tractor flanking the kitchen garden. Ducks and geese are everywhere, fleet- footed shadows moving low across the forest clearings.

This is the home of the famous Landes chickens - a modern benchmark for naturally raised poultry - that Tesco puts on our tables. But would the Brits be so enthralled with this rural Utopia if they realised that these same farmers, this same traditional way of life, comprise an industry that many regard as the ultimate in animal cruelty? For this is also foie gras country, the home of the ducks and geese reared to produce the artificially fattened livers so prized by chefs and gourmets.

British commentators, such as Audrey Eyton in her book Kind Food, refer to the production of foie gras as 'torture . . . the cruellest food of all'. She talks of force-feeding, of swollen livers, of birds' abject misery. Avoid it at all costs, she urges. I have always supported this view, albeit with some regret. Once, staying with a French family, we were served foie gras as a great treat. Gently baked in a just trembling bain-marie in the lowest of ovens, the resulting terrine was one of the most delicious tastes of my life.

In Britain, the fresh foie gras market is tiny. Retailers fear the wrath of radical vegetarians. Restaurant consumption is tainted by association with the stinking rich. By contrast, the French produce 600 tonnes of foie gras each year. Though a percentage is destined for top restaurants the world over, most is consumed by ordinary French people as special-occasion food.

A raw foie gras liver can cost as little as pounds 10. Most commonly, it would be served quickly pan-fried or as a terrine. And there is a big market for 'block' or tinned/cooked foie gras - with various rubrics such as mousse and pate - most of which tastes little better than cheap meat paste. But at whatever quality level, it is as 'normal' for the French to consume foie gras as it is for the British to eat smoked salmon.

So are we too precious, or are they barbaric? I packed up my prejudices and set off for St Sever and the firm called Sarrade, France's biggest exporter of foie gras to Britain. The company's structure is totally unlike any British farming venture. It acts as abattoir, butchery, sales and distribution unit for about 3,000 small producers in the departements of the Landes, Gers, Pyrenees Atlantiques and Haut Pyrenees.

After one phone call, it was open doors - in contrast with the secretive attitude of some of Britain's large poultry farmers. I was met by the export and production managers, and asked them straight out: 'We think foie gras is cruel; is it?'

The French find this sentiment unthreatening and slightly amusing. Patiently, they referred me to a statement by the chairman of the National Union of French Veterinarians, a Dr Marcel Lux: 'Cramming (the French word is gavage) is an age-old activity, a well-controlled mastery of a farming technique, the aim of which is intensive, but progressive, fattening adapted to the physiological characteristics inherent in each species. Under no circumstances can one consider that it involves what certain misinformed groups call 'ill-treatment'.'

He points out that, before migrating, ducks and geese naturally store energy by accumulating fat in their livers, which return to normal when feeding is stopped. Thus, he argues, no physiological damage is done.

The basic argument against foie gras hinges on the unnatural feeding of the birds. Before the final period of fattening, the ducks and geese enjoy a life that modern dairy cows, intensively reared pigs and broiler chickens would envy. The birds are delivered to the farms at a day old - the ones I saw lived in a big, warm, airy barn - and three weeks later are placed in vast fields, with barns to shelter in and a constant supply of maize and soya.

The farmer I visited grew all his own maize, chosen because of its high glucose content. After the birds have cleared and fertilised one field, it is planted again as soon as they move on to the next one. Not until they are 16 weeks old do they go in for fattening (or force-feeding or cramming, depending on which word you pick). By contrast, the average British chicken or duck will be lucky to live beyond seven weeks, all or most of it indoors. At the farm I visited, the ducks were fattened indoors, 100 at a time in groups of 10, in pens that allowed reasonably free movement though radically restricted compared with the field. Frustratingly, my visit did not coincide with feeding times: first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

The farmer would have welcomed me at these times, but I settled for a demonstration: take the duck; put the funnel down its throat; fill the funnel with maize and, with the other hand, massage the feed down its throat.

He looked genuinely perplexed that anyone could object to this. 'Don't they resist or struggle?' I asked.

'The first two or three days, there are always a couple of wild ones which don't like being caught or held, but mostly they get quite used to it and come forward voluntarily. They have to get accustomed to the person. All the ducks definitely prefer my wife doing the feeding. We switch on the radio, and the children help.'

In this manner, over two to three weeks, a duck weighing about 4kg (about 9lb) is forced (or encouraged, depending on your view) to put on 1kg or 2kg by consuming 10kg to 12kg of maize. I am not an animal welfarist, but the ducks I saw did not seem unhappy.

Not all foie gras is produced on such a small scale. Hungary, for example, has developed an intensive system where 1,000 to 2,000 birds are fed more mechanically in battery-type conditions. The French disapprove. 'There is one fattener round here who has that system,' Sarrade's production manager said, 'but it is not likely to spread. Apart from anything else, it costs about pounds 65,000 just to set it up.'

Watching the ducks being killed was not pleasant, but the whole process took at most 90 seconds - I timed it - and was as professional and painless as I could have imagined. (A top-heavy British turkey can hang legally upside down for eight minutes awaiting dispatch.) First, the birds, collected from a small area, are rested for two hours. Then they are hung by their legs on a conveyor belt, almost instantly passed through a water tank that stuns them with an electric charge, and their neck arteries are cut.

The logical vegetarian who wants no truck with any animal product is to be respected; but the high-minded British shopper, who shuns expensive foie gras yet does not think twice about buying a cheap cook-chill chicken kiev, non-free- range eggs or a turkey burger, is not.

Sarrade foie gras is imported by Bankside Imports (0423 324911).

(Photograph omitted)

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