Goose Necks, Duck Livers, And The New Europe

Leaning over a kitchen table at his hilltop farm, Elie Coustaty slits open a freshly killed goose and reaches for a bloated organ that nearly fills the ventral cavity. "It's a good one," he says. "You never know until you open it."

Straight from the goose, a raw foie gras is a disturbing sight: a waxy yellow mass the size of a child's football instead of the modest red liver that the goose would have if corn mash had not been forced down its throat three times a day for the last few weeks of its life. But wait until Madame Coustaty has cooked this fatted liver. Then spread it on toast and wash it down with Monbazillac, a local sweet white wine, and squeamish qualms will dissolve as quickly as this French delicacy melts in your mouth.

GOSLING INVASION. Here in Perigord, a rustic region where geese graze like cattle on grassy hillsides, nearly every farmer keeps a few geese or ducks for foie gras. And hundreds make their living from the product--either selling livers to big canneries or canning them at home for sale to tourists and other clients. Indeed, Perigord is to French gastronomy what Saudi Arabia is to world industry: the mother lode of a vital resource.

But these days, Perigord's farmers are being squeezed by two inexorable forces of history: the opening of the East and economic integration of Western Europe on New Year's Day, 1993. For Francois Fargeot, who raises geese in the shadow of a medieval castle, the impact of these events on Perigord seems clear. "All the small foie gras farmers are going to disappear," he says.

The threat from Eastern Europe is low-cost competition. For years, Hungarian geese have contributed their force-fed livers to Perigord canneries. But many French farmers riposted by switching to ducks. Cheaper to raise, ducks have captured almost 90% of France's foie gras market. That includes pates, in which the liver is mixed with other ingredients.

Granted, duck foie gras isn't as delicate as goose foie gras. "I can drink red wine with duck, but I'm physically incapable of doing so with goose," which calls for a more delicate white, says Charles Genson, sales director of a large French canner, Rougie. But most palates aren't so discerning, and duck foie gras, at $65 a pound in Paris stores, is 30% cheaper. Lower prices have caused a foie gras boom, with French output of duck and goose livers tripling since 1980, to 6,000 tons. This in turn has spurred French financial institutions to gobble up the four biggest canning companies. Only the Americans have lost their appetite for the French delicacy: Cholesterol fears and a weak dollar have chopped U. S. consumption in half in the past five years.

QUACKING MOB. Not surprisingly, former East bloc countries that crave hard currency are catching on to ducks. Trucks laden with cheap duck livers from Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria are rolling across Europe's highways toward canneries in Perigord--so far, the cachet of the name still discourages home canning. Imports already supply the majority of goose-based, French-canned products, so last fall outraged French farmers seized a Bulgarian truck and dumped its cargo of duck livers. The farmers have blocked the entrances to canneries. And they are lobbying the European Community lawmakers in Brussels to establish quotas on Easternimports.

Looking across a quacking mob of ducks on his farm south of Perigord, 28-year-old Jean-Marc Lafitte worries for his future if such efforts don't succeed. "Two years ago, canners paid me 150 francs a kilo"--about $12 a pound--he says, in lilting southern French. "Now, it's 120, and my cost is 110. I still make a profit, but not enough to build capital for investments."

The need for such capital to maintain and modernize the farm brings up the second whammy facing France's foie gras farmers. Building Western Europe's single market of 1993 means adopting a gaggle of new rules. Some are aimed at making cross-border competition easier, and others will standardize products and industrial practices to protect consumers--for example, ensuring that pea cans are the same size on shelves in Italy and Britain. Years ago, Brussels drew up hygiene rules for poultry processors, and now Paris is about to apply them, tardily, to foie gras.

By next October, Perigord's farmers have been told, they must install two refrigerated rooms--one for killing, the other for cutting. A veterinarian must regularly inspect flocks and during slaughtering must be constantly on the premises, with his own office. Farmers who cook and can their own foie gras must use an autoclave, an industrial sterilizing cooker. And they must provide separate toilets and showers for men and women, even if the farm family members are the only workers.

Small farmers here are stunned. Many already spent $20,000 or so under an earlier French hygiene campaign, and adopting Europe's standards could cost as much as $200,000. That's unthinkable for farmers who, such as Fargeot, gross only $20,000 a year from foie gras.

CO-OP SLAUGHTERHOUSES? For many, the new rules represent the dark side of 1993: a relentless homogenization of European society. Perigord's farmers admit that hygiene could be improved, but they think the new rules are extreme. "We haven't poisoned any Frenchmen. Are the British and Belgians weaker than us?" asks Pierre Le Chevalier, a goose farmer who heads an emergency committee that hopes to persuade regulators to ease the rules.

But up in Paris, government officials believe Europe's standards are reasonable. Farm-canned foie gras caused a nonfatal case of botulism in the early 1980s. Salmonella, along with residues from antibiotics given to sick poultry, are also worries, says Jacques Adroit, head of a state veterinary agency. Eastern European competitors--mostly large-scale enteprises--must follow the same rules, he says. Adroit urges Perigord farmers to form slaughtering cooperatives--a move they say is impractical. Failing that, he says, perhaps they should forget foie gras and rent rooms to tourists.

That would be a shame. Force-feeding may not be a pleasant practice--although farmers here will pointedly tell you that birds in the wild gorge themselves before migrating, and that they enjoy it. But the goose and duck farms of this gentle province represent an older lifestyle that is disappearing in Western Europe. East of here, in central France, agribusiness has turned villages into ghost towns. Perigord's small foie gras farmers hope that's not the fate that the new Europe has in store for their region.

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