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Cruelty Charges Long Overdue for Foie Gras Farmers

29/03/2015 20:44 BST | Updated 29/05/2015 10:59 BST

Last month, a judge struck down California's ban on the sale of foie gras. Focusing on a technicality, he ruled that foie gras is an "ingredient" and therefore covered by the US Poultry Products Inspection Act, which state law cannot override. Fortunately, California's attorney general has appealed the ruling. If justice prevails, the judge presiding over the appeal will reinstate the ban, as there is no justification for inflicting such tremendous suffering on ducks and geese - suffering that has been documented time and time again by investigators on foie gras farms.

But while animal rights suffered a setback in California, progress for birds used by foie gras farms appeared elsewhere - ironically, in France. Just a couple of weeks after the California ban was struck down, a French foie gras producer appeared in court, accused of "serious animal cruelty". The unprecedented case came after the French group L214 documented appalling conditions at farms that produce foie gras for industry leader Ernest Soulard, which supplies foie gras to Alain Ducasse and other prominent chefs.

Video footage shot by L214 shows ducks confined to cramped, shoebox-like cages with slits in the top that allow the ducks' heads to protrude for ease of force-feeding. The cages are so small that the birds can only stand up and sit down. They can't turn around or spread a single wing. All they can do is sit helplessly and wait for workers to arrive with the dreaded force-feeding machine, a pneumatic device that pumps several pounds of food daily into the birds' stomachs via a metal pipe that is jammed down their throats.

Many of the birds shown on the video look listless and miserable. Some seem too weak to lift their heads. Their feathers are lank and dirty - even if they felt well enough to groom themselves, they are physically prevented from doing so. Without access to water for bathing - which is vital for waterfowl - the ducks' eyes become inflamed and irritated. Some birds have bloody wounds and abscesses, while others are covered with vomit. Some appear to be dead, their heads hanging limply through the cage bars.

Although the case wasn't ultimately successful, it was the first of its kind in France and has surely opened the door for many more to come. This is about more than one producer accused of cruelty to animals. It is about the foie gras industry as a whole, and it has brought to light the overt cruelty that is the industry norm. In fact, the abuses documented at farms supplying Ernest Soulard are nearly identical to those documented at another foie gras producer, Maison Mitteault. The motto of that family-owned business, "Quality, nothing but quality", is apparently not intended to be ironic. Heston Blumenthal stopped buying foie gras from Maison Mitteault after video footage surfaced last year showing birds with bloody wounds on their bills and feet, ducks panting and gasping for air and dying birds writhing in agony. Chefs from Blumenthal's restaurant, The Fat Duck, had previously visited the farm themselves and believed the conditions shown to them on their guided tour were humane. The undercover video soon changed their minds.

The cages shown in both videos were supposed to have been phased out per guidelines issued by the Council of Europe in 1999, yet France is showing few signs of eliminating them. An investigation coordinated in 2010 by PETA Germany and Stop Gavage indicated that cage systems in that same style continued to be constructed even after the guidelines were issued. France produces approximately 74 per cent of the world's foie gras. If you buy foie gras from your local market or order it in a restaurant, it most likely came from a French factory farm.

A dying breed of self-proclaimed 'foodie' still shamelessly defends its obsession with this torture in a tin, no matter how many videos surface showing ducks and geese in abject misery. But the future for foie gras producers and aficionados is bleak. Even the French, a nation once synonymous with the cruel foodstuff, are turning their backs on foie gras. Forty-seven per cent of French people agree that torturing birds to produce a 'delicacy' is cruel and they support a ban on force-feeding, according to a recent OpinionWay poll. Times are changing. And a day is on the horizon when it will be impossible to obtain this vile substance in California, Britain, or anywhere else. That day can't come soon enough.