by Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
October 10, 2011
Caledonia, Minn. — On a winding road in southeastern Minnesota, there's a 60-acre farm unlike any other in the Midwest.
Au Bon Canard, or "good duck" in French, is where Christian Gasset raises ducks to produce a culinary delicacy: foie gras, or fattened duck liver. The Au Bon Canard duck livers — along with breasts, wings and other parts — end up on plates of the most celebrated restaurants in the Upper Midwest.
Inside a barn on Gasset's farm on a recent morning, four long wooden pens each held about 16 adult male ducks, with room for the ducks to walk around. Gasset and his wife, Liz Gibson-Gasset, moved slowly to keep the birds calm.
"With foie gras, the really big thing is you can't have a good product if you're not treating your ducks well," she said. "If they're unhappy, if they're stressed out, if anything's wrong with their living conditions, you don't get a good product."
But as much as the Gassets try to keep their birds content, how they and other foie gras producers feed ducks makes the product controversial. Animal rights activists say the process used to fatten the ducks' livers amounts to animal torture.
The Gassets, who started their business in 2004, raise and slaughter about 2,100 males ducks a year, a fraction of what their competitors in New York and California produce. The birds on their farm are Mullard ducks, a cross between Pekins and Muscovies. They arrived from California as day-old chicks.
After living the first few weeks in a temperature-controlled room, they spend another eight weeks or so outdoors, eating a mixture of corn, bugs and grass before going into the barn for controlled feedings.
Twice a day for the last two weeks of a duck's life, Gasset tilts the bird's head back, inserts an eight-inch funnel into its throat and pours three-quarters of a pound of freshly cooked kettle corn down the duck's esophagus.
The corn goes into a small organ called the crop, which Gasset massages for a few seconds as he pulls the funnel out. It takes him seven seconds to feed each bird.
Gasset said controlling the amount of corn the duck ingests during the last two weeks of its life plumps its liver up to 10 times its normal size — making it foie gras. As the liver's color changes from black to yellow, its texture becomes creamy, like butter.
Gasset said the process is meant to mimic the way a bird puts on weight before fall migration, even though the ducks never migrate. To him, many of those who criticize the process simply don't want anyone to eat meat and see foie gras as an easy target.
"It's such a small production and you kind of target the rich people, because it's a really extremely expensive product at the end," he said.
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