SAMATAN, France - Foie gras pate, the consummate delicacy of French holiday tables, might be harder to find in 2022 and certainly pricier because of a bird flu outbreak that ravaged farms across the west and south last winter.
After millions of ducks and geese were culled to halt the epidemic, some farmers say they are having to take an unprecedented step – using females to produce the luxury treat.
The taste is the same, but female livers are much smaller and harder to work with, and the impact on a producer’s bottom line is inescapable.
“It was double or nothing, but either we just sat and waited – which is not in our nature – or we try to offer a product that respects our consumers,” said Mr Benjamin Constant in Samatan, south-west France.
President of the foie gras marketing board for the Gers department of south-western France, Mr Constant warned that it was only a stopgap measure, especially for higher-quality fresh foie gras.
Most livers have veins that must be removed, but those of female livers are much bigger and require more effort to extract, which puts off clients seeking the smooth texture of fresh foie gras that is either seared in a pan, or used to make pate.
“A significant amount cannot be sold fresh, which penalises the producers who sell at public markets,” Mr Constant said.
Mr Jacques Candelon, who has been raising ducks in the plains of nearby Sarrant since 1998, said this is the first year most of his 26,000 birds are females, which are usually reserved to produce meat for export.
“Eighty per cent are females – it was either that or nothing,” the 52-year-old told AFP at his farm, dressed head to toe in protective gear to prevent any contamination of his animals.
Animal rights activists have long denounced the force-feeding of ducks and geese to make foie gras, calling it an unnecessary cruelty despite producers’ claims of introducing measures to make the process more humane.
France remains the world’s largest producer and consumer, usually raising some 30 million ducks alone each year, even though some French cities have banned it from official functions.
But two brutal bird flu outbreaks in recent years decimated flocks as the authorities imposed culls, with just 21 million ducks raised in 2021, a number expected to plunge to 15 million for 2022, according to Comite Interprofessionnel des Palmipedes a Foie Gras (Cifog), the foie gras producers’ association.
More problematic was the impact on breeding farms, which found themselves with only scant numbers of male chicks to offer producers in 2022.
Labeyrie, the brand that dominates sales among mass retailers, expects a shortage of 30 per cent to 40 per cent this holiday season, by far the most important time of the year for the sector.
Spiralling energy and feed prices, a fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, will also make foie gras more of a stretch for family budgets.
“There will be enough for the holidays but in limited quantities,” Cifog director Marie-Pierre Pe told AFP in September. “We’re hoping that people are going to be reasonable and will share what little there is.”
Old habits die hard, however, and at the bustling weekly duck market at Samatan, a foie gras bastion near Toulouse in the heart of Gers, much of the crowd wanted only the pale, plump male livers.
“Females are much, much smaller and after force-feeding, the livers are smaller and less attractive visually,” said Dr Didier Villate, a veterinarian who has overseen the Samatan market for more than 40 years.
Next to a tray of glistening male livers, many of the female livers had red blotches with thick dark veins, “which is unfortunately something we find quite often” even though it doesn’t change the taste or texture, Dr Villate said.
“Clients are surprised, so we have to make a big effort to explain to consumers that there is no danger – it’s purely visual, you can buy and eat them just the same,” he said.
But male or female, prices have spiked to between €55 (S$79) and €60 a kilogram, or “€15 to €20 more than normal”, said Mr Constant, calling 2022 “catastrophic for the sector”.
For Ms Gilberte Bru, who like dozens of others rushed in at the market’s opening whistle to stock up for the holidays, the decision was easy – she picked the male livers. “Yes, because they are bigger,” she said. AFP