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Duck still on the menu despite bird flu

Jane Hanks visits duck farms in Landes and Dordogne to hear how breeders are coping after the 2016 bird flu outbreak and mass cull

Raising ducks and producing foie gras and related products is an inherent part of French culture. In the South West in particular, you cannot travel far without pass-ing a sign directing you to a farm where you can buy foie gras or eat at a restaurant which doesn’t have at least one, but usually most of its menu made up of at least one duck related element.

France is the second producer in the world for ducks and number one in Europe. Most are raised in the South West in a region which stretches from Périgord to the Pyrénées and from Landes through to Gers. The most important department is Landes, where 25% of France’s ducks are farmed. Alsace, Brittany, Pays de la Loire and Normandy also have a long tradition.

In France ducks are raised for foie gras, magret de canard, confit de canard, aiguillettes, pâtés and rillettes and all of these products come from a bird which has undergone the “gavage”, been force fed. Only a very, very, few are sold to produce eggs or meat for roasting. Only male ducks are used for the gavage.

Rafael Prévot from the Maison du Palmipède, an association of professionals, which promotes foie gras for the Landes, says that the female ducklings are either slaughtered or sent to Eastern Europe or China which he says produce an inferior and smaller foie gras.

He says that this winter farms are struggling after last year’s epidemic of bird flu when 1.5 million ducks were killed to avoid the spread of the disease: “Some farms in Landes and Gers, which were particularly hard hit, were unable to operate for up to eight months. The government has promised help but not many have received any money yet and it is going to be very difficult for many farmers.

There are new rules in place and a study showed that in Landes, 20% of farms have not been able to carry out the necessary changes so far and unless they do so they will not be able to continue. We are clear of the disease now but we just hope there will not be a new epidemic this winter.”

The new regulations affect all farmers, but are stricter for the bigger farms, which have more than 3,500 birds. They will have to keep their flocks under cover for most of the winter. The fact that the smaller producers have been spared is a relief to family farms which hope to continue, using their traditional methods.

Joël Cabannes and his brother Benoît head a farm that has been in the same family for four generations. La Ferme du Foie Gras at Mugron, Landes takes ducklings aged 1-2 days old and from then on is responsible for the whole procedure including selling its produce for which the family use recipes that have stayed the same for 30 years. 8,000 ducks pass through their hands every year and they arrive in batches of 4-500 every three weeks. They are Mulards, which is the breed used by 90% of farmers and they are a cross between a Barbary male and a Peking or Rouen female.


The rearing process

“For the first 15 days, the ducklings are kept in a heated building,” says Joël Cabannes. “During that time they learn to feed and drink on their own. After that, as soon as the weather is good enough, we let them outside on grass where there is shade and they have plenty to drink. Everything they eat is produced on the farm. We grow maize, wheat, field beans, peas, sunflowers and colza. The sunflowers and colza are pressed for oil and we take the residue “cakes” which are full of protein and give them to the ducks.

“After 14 weeks, we carry out the gavage for which we use whole grain cooked maize, which we think gives better results than maize which is made into a kind of porridge and which is now more commonly fed during the gavage.”

He says he can understand that people may feel that the process, when you see it on an industrial scale, looks horrifying. He insists the way he does it is completely different and takes into account the needs of individual birds, and that his ducks do not suffer: “I was born with the gavage and have learnt how to do it from a very young age. It is an art and a skill, which you never stop learning about. The duck has a crop where it stores food before digesting it. We fill the crop when we carry out the gavage. When you use whole grains you put it into a funnel with a screw mechanism which releases it slowly into the crop.

“The gavage takes place twice a day. Each time we check the crop of the bird to make sure that it is empty, which means that the bird has been able to
digest everything we gave it on the previous occasion and if there is some left we will regulate the amount we give it. In the industrial gavage the same quantity is given to each bird. We treat each bird individually. A healthy bird will result in a much better quality of meat and liver. I am not interested in quantity and in speed but in quality.”

The ducks are kept in pens of 10 or 15 and he says they have room to move around. It takes around an hour to “force feed” 100 ducks. He says in industrial farms they go four or five times more quickly. The gavage lasts 12 to 14 days and the ducks are then killed on site and processed and cooked.  He says this is the best way to avoid health problems: “There has always been bird flu. But before farms used to do everything. Now many specialise, and so birds are moved from farm to farm to abbatoir, and kept in huge quantities so that disease spreads more easily. If you are a human and have flu, you stay at home until it is over and you do not go out and spread your germs. It is the same for birds.”

None of the ducks belonging to the Cabannes family contracted bird flu last year, but 2,000 of their flock were slaughtered to prevent any risk of contamination and they had to stop working for 5 months. “We have enough ducks now, but we do not have enough products to sell over the winter, because we could not build up stocks as we usually do in the spring and summer.”

Mr Cabannes says that only 15% of duck farms are small scale and that they are facing hard times. Thirry Tribier in the Dordogne agrees. He also has a family farm, at Paulin, with three generations working together.  Eleven people work there of whom six are Tribiers. They are Thierry, his wife Caroline, his brother Frédéric and his wife, Lalie, Thierry and Frédéric’s parents and their children during the school holidays. Up until 2015 the grandfather also worked there.

They raise pigs and ducks from which they produce foie gras and other products such as confit de canard, magret, rillettes and pâté. They take in ducks for the gavage, kill them and transform them to sell.

Thierry Tribier says there is a huge shortage of ducks and they will not have enough produce to satisfy all their clients this year: “We were not hit directly last winter, but each batch of ducks that arrives is short of the number I ordered.”

He too feeds his ducks with whole grain maize produced on his farm. He says one of the tragedies of the bird flu episode is that the ducks do not show any signs of having bird flu, and even if they do have the illness they cannot pass [this strain] on to humans and their meat is perfectly safe to eat: “It is extremely difficult to detect whether a duck has the illness and as it would cost too much to carry out laboratory tests for thousands of ducks it is easier to kill them to reduce the risk of contamination.”

And in the end he says it is producers like him that will suffer: “Duck farming is becoming more and more industrialised and the problems it causes will eventually mean that it is the small scale farmers who will not be able to survive. However, at present people buy because they are attracted by the idea of tradition and the image we give to the product. I am not sure that people will want to eat foie gras when the produce comes solely from large scale farms.”

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