As the French restaurant Beaujolais was ending its Foie Gras Festival in Abu Dhabi last week, Sir Roger Moore was in London to launch his campaign against the high-end British grocer Selfridges for continuing to sell the controversial duck liver product. "Steak with foie gras, grilled salmon with foie gras, duck liver soup, apple with fat duck liver, it was all very popular," said a waitress at the Hamdam Street restaurant, describing some of the dishes served during the event, which ran from October 28 to November 6.
If the luxury of a culinary item is enhanced by the cruelty involved in its production, foie gras is the ultimate pièce de résistance. Though it may be among the most delicious of all French contributions to gastronomy, enjoying it can present something of a moral dilemma. Which is why Moore has joined forces with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) to promote the cause. Billboards outside Selfridges in Oxford Street, London, show the actor holding a sign saying: "Force-feeding birds is cruel, not yule."
He also narrated a graphic video produced by Peta, in which ducks are seen in metal cages little bigger than themselves. In the force-feeding process - gavage in French - the already bloated birds are shown having metal tubes pushed about six inches down their necks, delivering a corn-based mush directly to their stomachs. One shot shows the tube being inserted and then removed quickly, as blood begins to pour out of the bird's beak.
Cuts and even puncturing of the throat have been reported by Peta investigators. Its website describes one duck that could not drink water because of holes in its throat caused by clumsy force-feeding. The gavage takes place in the two weeks before the birds are due to be slaughtered. Migratory birds have a propensity for gaining weight, which they do in nature prior to migration. The omnivores' throats expand naturally, allowing them to swallow fish and other prey whole.
A Spanish company, Pateria de Sousa, which produces "natural" foie gras - ganso iberico - was awarded the Coup de Coeur, a prestigious food award, by the Paris International Food Salon. To qualify as natural, the ducks can only be slaughtered seasonally, ahead of their annual migration. The product might be slightly more expensive, but buyers including the leading London store Harrods have already expressed interest in carrying this "cruelty-free" version of the delicacy.
In another "cruelty-free" alternative, the ducks are allowed to over-feed naturally, but not force-fed. According to an EU report, "Welfare Aspects of the Production of Foie Gras in Ducks and Geese", the force-feeding process goes beyond what the birds would ordinarily consume - by enough to swell the liver to between six and 10 times its normal size. In medical terms this is called hepatic steatosis and is classified as a disease. In people it is often the result of obesity or alcoholism and has been observed in HIV-positive people.
Controversy surrounding gavage has led to the banning of foie gras production in the United Kingdom, Germany, the Czech Republic, Finland, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark and Israel. A law proscribing both the production and sale of it in California has been signed by the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and will come into effect in 2012. Moore has promised to boycott Selfridges until its shops stop -selling the product.
"As foie gras production is too violent to show on an ad, surely this 'torture in a tin' is too violently produced for Selfridges to sell," he said to the British press. A London employee explained that the store carried two types, fresh and tin, and said foie gras was among the most popular items - "especially at this time of year". Force-feeding of birds for the -table was first recorded in about 2500BC in Egypt, although in recent centuries the French have dominated both production and consumption of foie gras, currently making almost 80 per cent of the world's supply. About 96 per cent of that is made from duck, the remainder from goose.
Defenders of foie gras argue that force-feeding is no worse than many other intensive farming practices. Well-known chefs, including Anthony Bourdain, have spoken out against bans. "I know I'm in peril of being thought of as some kind of culinary Ted Nugent," he said in an interview with the website Salon in 2006. "As I see it, what's at stake is the individual's right to choose, the future of my profession, and good taste. Not to mention a delicious organ that dates back to the beginnings of gastronomy as we know it."
At Bord Eau, the pricey French restaurant in Abu Dhabi's Shangri-La Hotel, diners still order dishes containing foie gras. The foie gras-topped wagyu beef cheek is popular, as are the pan-seared foie gras with mushroom and the foie gras terrine with hazelnut, explains Meidy Zuhry, the demi-chef. Demand goes up in winter, as the fatty duck liver is considered a seasonal dish. "Foie gras is important; it is the basis of classical French cuisine," said Zuhry, adding: "We've never had any complaints."