Paris (CNN) — Fois gras, the French culinary jewel that is as delicious as it is controversial, is a staple of upscale restaurants across the country. But now it's vanishing from menus during an "unprecedented" crisis that has seen some manufacturers begin to consider reducing portions.
At the heart of the problem is a bird flu epidemic that has been sweeping across the country -- and Europe -- for months. It's already devastated the country's poultry industry, but now it threatens one of the country's greatest bastions: Its Michelin-starred restaurants.
"It's been a month since we started to have less foie gras, and then this week we got none," says Pascal Lombard, the chef and owner of Le 1862, a one Michelin-star fine dining venue in bucolic southwestern France.
As regular deliveries of the luxurious goose liver paté have dried up, Lombard has been scheduling emergency meetings with local producers.
Foie gras is no stranger to crises.
Its traditional production, involving the force feeding of geese and ducks, has long attracted condemnation from animal rights campaigners, who have succeeded in getting such methods banned elsewhere.
Yet while French appetites for the delicacy have been largely undimmed by concerns over animal cruelty, another threat to avian welfare is now curbing consumption.
16 million birds have been culled in France to try to curb the bird flu epidemic.
Alain Pitton/NurPhoto/Getty Images
The town of Les Eyzies, where Lombard's restaurant is located, is in the heart of Périgord, one of the epicenters of the latest bird flu epidemic.
The country has had to kill 16 million poultry since the epidemic first started in November 2021 to try to control the disease, the French Agriculture Ministry confirmed to CNN.
"This number is unprecedented for France, which had never been exposed to a crisis of such scale," said Marie-Pierre Pé, director of France's interprofessional committee for foie gras producers.
Foie gras production in France is expected to drop by up to 50% this year as the epidemic affects 80% of foie gras producers in the country.
A veteran of the foie gras industry with 35 years of experience, Pé is no stranger to avian influenza. Like seasonal outbreaks in the human world, bird flu hits Europe almost every year when birds migrate to and from Africa.
This year the epidemic emerged in spring and reached the Pays de la Loire region in the west and Périgord territory in the southwest -- two crucial poultry production areas in France.
Pays de la Loire alone represents 72% of the ducks and geese hatched in France's foie gras industry, according to Pé.
"I have a small smiley message [to the customers and producers]: We have to share with each other," Pé said, adding that people should consume less foie gras this year so that more could get the chance to enjoy this delicacy.
"There will certainly be small packaging sizes to make it easier to serve all the customers," she said.
Isolation and vaccination
To make the situation worse, other major foie gras producing countries in Europe are also facing a similar crisis, making it hard to make up for the shortfall via imports.
Bird flu has been detected across the European Union since October 2021, including in European Federation of Foie Gras member states Spain, Belgium, Bulgaria and Hungary, according to the latest European Commission report on the epidemic.
To bring the epidemic to an end and help production return to normal level in 2023, Pé and her fellow foie gras producers rely on two words that the Covid pandemic has made very familiar: isolation and vaccination.
"We have a monitoring program that follows the same principle as what we've known to fight against Covid-19," she said.
In areas where bird flu is detected, producers are sheltering ducks and geese to ensure that there is no contamination with migratory birds.
This requires producers to reduce the number of poultry at their farm so they have enough space indoors to accommodate them, according to Pé.
Two vaccine candidates are on clinical trial, but they won't be available until 2023 at the earliest, Pé said.
Back in Les Eyzies in southwestern France, chef Lombard is working on new dishes to fill the void left by the foie gras shortage.
"Between the bird flu, the war in Ukraine and all that, we're going to run out of a lot of products and we'll have to adapt with the products we have," Lombard said.
"2022 will be the year with a bit more vegetable dishes and less meat."