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The Foie Fiasco

France launches mass duck vaccination program amid bird flu crisis

In a bid to shield its poultry industry, including its famed foie gras production, from the devastating impacts of bird flu, France has initiated a sweeping vaccination campaign covering 64 million ducks. This campaign, commencing recently, aims to curb the spread of a deadly variant of avian influenza that has led French farmers to cull over 30 million birds in the last three years, causing a downturn in foie gras production.

No Easy Task

The vaccination effort, hailed as a “glimmer of hope” by Éric Dumas, president of France’s foie gras federation, received a high-profile launch when Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau visited a duck farm near Bordeaux. However, the swift response from the United States has cast a shadow over this endeavour. The U.S. Agriculture Department expressed concerns about the risk of introducing the disease into the United States through duck imports, leading to restrictions on imports of ducks and other poultry from Europe. The vaccination program is perceived as the first of its kind in the European Union.

The Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), also known as bird flu, has been a global concern in recent years, causing massive poultry deaths, including nearly 60 million farmed birds in the United States alone. To combat the disease, French farmers had already implemented health checks, reduced bird density on farms, and conducted culling operations. These efforts resulted in a 35 per cent drop in duck availability for foie gras production in 2022 compared to the previous year, according to the foie gras committee.
Marie Pierre Pé, director of the foie gras federation, emphasized the vaccine program’s importance for farmers who have suffered significant losses due to avian flu. “We’ve paid a heavy price for the avian flu,” she stated. “We are going to protect the animals.”

Birds of a Feather

Foie gras, the delicacy made from the liver of ducks or geese fattened through forced feeding, holds a prominent place in French gastronomy but has also faced criticism for its production methods, with some considering it animal cruelty. The French government’s vaccination program will be compulsory for farms with more than 250 ducks, accounting for a total of 64 million birds. This surpasses the number of people vaccinated against COVID-19 in France, and like many COVID vaccines, this one also requires two doses. The initial vaccination will be administered to 10-day-old chicks, followed by a second dose eight days later. The campaign, extending into the following year, presents a substantial technical and financial challenge, according to the foie gras federation.

Ducks were chosen for vaccination because they easily contract and spread the virus. The French government will cover 85 per cent of the program’s cost, which amounts to approximately 80 million euros (about $84 million). This is a fraction of the more than €1 billion the government paid in 2021 and 2022 to compensate farmers for culling their birds, as revealed in a recent French parliamentary report. Public health authorities are concerned about the possibility of bird flu mutating into a form transmissible to humans, prompting accelerated efforts to control outbreaks.

The U.S. Agriculture Department’s decision to restrict imports was prompted by France’s vaccination of ducks. Vaccinated poultry may not display signs of bird flu, potentially masking the presence of the virus. France’s Ministry of Agriculture has initiated discussions with the United States to address these concerns and swiftly lift the restrictions. Experts clarified that the ban would not affect French foie gras producers, as they do not export to the United States.