Foie gras producers in France pledge to rear birds in a more humane way
French farmers to use bigger cages, rethink force-feeding and be more open about it
Long accused of torture by animal-rights activists, French foie gras producers are admitting they may have gone too far.
They have vowed changes to how ducks and geese are reared, and their livers fattened.
They are also promising a new spirit of openness about gavage - the force-feeding of animals by passing plastic tubes through their throats directly into their stomachs.
"Maybe we did go a little too far," said Marie Pierre Pe of CIFOG, an industry group representing French foie gras producers. "In the Eighties, 30 to 35 per cent of foie gras came from Eastern European countries. We had to improve production to be more competitive and maybe went too far," she said.
Animal-rights activists have carried out a sustained campaign against foie gras - literally "fatty liver" in French. Its sale has been banned in California, Britain's House of Lords has taken it off its menu and internet retailer Amazon has banned it.
The delicacy is fiercely defended by fans who argue that birds stuff themselves with food in the wild while undertaking long migrations. But critics insist the practice is cruel, and a 1998 EU report showed that death rates among force-fed birds could be up to 20 times higher than in those reared normally.
Foie gras producers have also come under fire for keeping the ducks and geese in cages where they have no space to move or even spread their wings.
Steps are being taken to improve conditions, with the French agriculture ministry ordering producers by 2016 to introduce cages capable of housing at least three birds and big enough for them to move around and spread their wings.
CIFOG is also opening the doors of farms to show how the animals are reared and fed. It recently showed off a farm in the southwestern region of Gers run by Pierre Peres and his twin brother, who force-feed nearly 9,000 ducks a year.
Considered an artisanal farm, it is far from typical industrial production. At the Peres farm, ducks are kept in enclosed areas but are free to move around. Force-feeding is done individually, with feeders picking up the animals and placing them on their laps to insert a funnel in their throats.
Such farms are hardly the norm. The vast majority of producers, about 5,000, are industrial sites.
At one such farm run by the Euralis group, 1,000 ducks are force-fed. In one cage several animals are clearly injured and bleeding. In another, one duck lies dead.
Xavier Fernandez, a researcher at the Institute of Agronomical Research in Toulouse, said visitors should "distance themselves emotionally" from what they see. "Force feeding is no more shocking than any other method of animal husbandry," he said.