Luxury appetites and protectionism bring foie gras production to China

March 31, 2014
March 31, 2014

This item has been corrected. 

For Chinese consumers, France is synonymous with “fancy.” And few things convey French luxury as conspicuously as eating the liver of a force-fed fowl—which probably explains the surging popularity of foie gras in China these days.

Along with caviar and truffles, foie gras (literally “fatty liver”) ranks among the most popular Western gourmet foods. But despite its citizens’ appetite for the stuff, as well as heavy lobbying from France, the Chinese government continues to ban foie gras imports from France, a policy it stuck with last week.

The Chinese government has not explained why it continues to ban imports. However, if it’s doing so to boost foreign investment in local industry, that’s working like a charm.

Euralis, the planet’s top foie producer, just announced that it will boost its production in China. Earlier this month, Euralis, which makes about a fourth of the foie produced in France, started building a new facility that will house 1 million tubby ducks by 2020 (97% of French foie gras comes from duck; the rest from geese). By May the factory will be up and running, churning out around 250 tons (227 tonnes) of foie gras, which works out to about 756,000 ducks a year, assuming 300 grams per duck liver (pdf, p.14).

That will be a big boost to China’s current annual production of around 1,000 tons of foie gras. Most of that comes from local companies, such as Sanrougey Fowls Company, the self-proclaimed biggest foie gras producer in Asia, which exports around three-quarters of its foie gras to five-star hotels on the mainland and in Hong Kong.

Of course, France still dominates, making around 20,000 tons a year—around 75% of global production. (Hungary is the runner up.) Most of that is produced by Euralis and around 5,000 other industrial farms.

But even though the French still love foie gras—apparently four out of five consider it a “must-serve” at parties (paywall)—not everyone is as enthusiastic. Those concerned about animal welfare are put off by “gavage,” the force-feeding method whereby a tube is stuck down the bird’s throat directly into its stomach, a process that lasts for 12 to 14 days. On top of that, the birds are typically stuffed into cages so tightly packed that they can’t even move their wings—a practice the industry adopted when it shifted production to eastern Europe in the 1980s in order to boost production.

Industrial foie gras farms like those Euralis runs are frequent targets of animal rights movement outrage and, increasingly, government restrictions. Germany and Poland have both banned gavage. The US state of California forbids production and sale of foie gras altogether. The French agriculture ministry recently ordered producers to meet expanded cage requirements by 2016.

But the restrictions elsewhere could be a boon for Chinese foie gras. “If foie gras production in Europe comes to an end, it would leave a gaping hole that the Chinese industry could then fill, as there are currently no laws prohibiting its production,” noted the state-run Global Times in March 2012.

Correction (March 31): An earlier version of this story misstated the number of ducks necessary to produce 250 tons (227 tonnes) of foie gras.

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