The History

Foie gras, the decadent foodstuff made from the fattened livers of ducks and geese, remains a dish that is available to few. While it is now recognized as a delicacy worldwide, foie gras bears roots in Ancient Greece and Rome, with its production methods stemming from Ancient Egypt. Though, only in the past several decades did foie gras gain celebrity as an elegant menu item, thanks to French chefs. Notably served at Michelin Star restaurants and other high-end establishments, foie gras highlights some of the paradoxes in global food access today.

A goose farm in Lot, France (photo courtesy of flickr user JanetandPhil)

The production method of force-feeding animals originates in Ancient Egypt. Pictorial representations show Egyptians force-feeding geese at the tomb Saqqarah, dating back to 2500 BCE. Consequently, the Greeks and Romans adopted the same method to produce meat and foie gras. Though, it was not until the mid-20th century that technological discoveries pushed farmers to commercialize the practice of force-feeding for foie gras output.¹

Beginning in 1950, French producers handled manual screw dispensers to feed cooked non-ground corn grains to geese and ducks, establishing the term gavage, or force-feeding, in farming vocabulary. By the 1980s, the feeding process streamlined, as producers adopted the Israeli design of pneumatic dispensers, which released corn mash and water into the mouths of animals at a fast rate. Revolutionizing foie gras production, pneumatic dispensers transformed the industry and the mechanisms of force-feeding to enlarge the animals’ livers.² With this, it is during the 14-day fattening process that the animal produces tastier meat.

A plate of foie gras terrine (photo courtesy of flickr user Jean-Michel Baud)

By 2002, France remained the top producer of foie gras, generating around 83% of the world’s supply, mostly centered on duck foie gras. Hungary, recorded in 2002 as well, held 60% of the world’s goose foie gras production. Spain, Israel, and Bulgaria all produced significant portions of output of both duck and goose foie gras.³ In the United States, two producers, Sonoma Valley Foie Gras and Hudson Valley Foie Gras, grew notoriety from celebrity chefs as “major forces in the industry”.4 Both sites claim to practice gavage in a humane and painless manner for the animal.

Today, foie gras is typically served one of two ways: seared (hot) or terrine-style (cold). In addition, it is frequently used in pâté or as a complement to steak dishes. Chefs adore the rich flavor of both duck and goose foie gras – a taste unlike anything else in its category – as its texture allows for experimentation in the kitchen. Delicious atop a slice of crunchy bread or tart fruit, gastronomists enjoy the complexities of foie gras creations.

¹Guémené D. and G. Guy, “The past, present, and future of force-feeding and “foie gras” production,” World’s Poultry Science Journal 60 (2004), 211.

²Ibid., 213.

³Ibid., 215.

4Harrington, Alexandra R., “Not All It’s Quaked Up To Be: Why State and Local Efforts to Ban Foie Gras Violate Constitutional Law,” Drake Journal of Agricultural Law (2007), 4.