Bul­gar­ian, Hun­gar­ian foie gras mak­ers feed mar­kets

Kuwait Times - - BUSINESS -

Ev­ery Christ­mas, foie gras pro­duc­ers in Bulgaria and Hun­gary are over­whelmed with over­seas or­ders but while France re­mains their key client, the hunt for more lu­cra­tive mar­kets is lead­ing to Asia. France is the top pro­ducer and consumer of the con­tro­ver­sial del­i­cacy. Foie gras is fun­da­men­tal to a tra­di­tional Gal­lic Christ­mas din­ner and France has made a habit of stock­ing up its own in­ven­to­ries with cheaper ver­sions from Bulgaria and Hun­gary.

At Bulgaria’s largest fac­tory near the south­ern vil­lage of Milevo, dozens of women nim­bly sort, clean, de­vein, and pack hun­dreds of ki­los of duck liv­ers that have come straight from the slaugh­ter­house. Other work­ers cook and can glazed duck con­fit. Vir­tu­ally un­known at lo­cal Christ­mas din­ner ta­bles, the bulk of Volex’s pro­duc­tion will go to France. The la­bels of big French brands are placed di­rectly on the jars be­fore they even leave the fac­to­ries, al­though the coun­try of ori­gin is also in­di­cated. This year, Bulgaria and Hun­gary es­ti­mate that sales in newer mar­kets could shoot up by around 15 per­cent as French ex­ports out­side the EU have been hit by re­peated bird flu scares. “If 10 years ago we sold 100 per­cent of our pro­duce to France, now this share is about 80 per­cent,”Volex fac­tory owner Pla­men Chelebiev told AFP.

For the past four years, his sales have been in­creas­ing in Switzer­land and Ja­pan, and more re­cently also in Viet­nam and Thai­land. “In these mar­kets we sell our prod­ucts un­der our own brand names and at much higher prices, which makes it more in­ter­est­ing for us,” Chelebiev said. But Volex is also do­ing well in­side the EU. In Spain and Bel­gium, “we’re now sell­ing our prod­ucts with­out pass­ing via France,” Chelebiev added. Bulgaria and Hun­gary en­tered the lu­cra­tive trade in the 1990s by modernising large co­op­er­a­tive farms from com­mu­nist times and us­ing cheap hand labour. Since then, Bulgaria has be­come the world’s largest maker of duck foie gras af­ter France, while Hun­gary holds a quasi monopoly on fat­tened goose liver.

Even French pro­duc­ers have ex­pressed con­cern over the grow­ing com­pe­ti­tion. “A part of Bulgaria and Hun­gar­ian prod­ucts are go­ing to third coun­tries whose mar­kets re­main closed to us,” Marie-Pierre Pe, the di­rec­tor of French foie gras mak­ers’ group CI­FOG, said ear­lier this year. Around 100 com­pa­nies in Bulgaria, the EU’s poor­est coun­try, are in­volved in the foie gras busi­ness.

Volex hatches some three mil­lion duck­lings ev­ery year from French-im­ported eggs at an 80-hectare (195-acre) farm in the south­ern town of Haskovo. Two mil­lion are sold to other Bul­gar­ian pro­duc­ers, while the rest are raised and fed in col­lec­tive cages be­fore be­ing trans­ferred to the slaugh­ter­house and fac­tory in Milevo. Un­like France, Bulgaria never had the money to in­vest in sin­gle cages for the highly crit­i­cised prac­tice of gav­age, or force-feed­ing birds with grains to fat­ten their liv­ers around four times their nat­u­ral weight.

Ducks put on weight more quickly in sin­gle cages be­cause they have no room to move­but these were pro­hib­ited EU-wide in 2016 af­ter protests by an­i­mal rights ac­tivists. Biosafety mea­sures at farms in both Bulgaria and Hun­gary are ex­tremely strict, in­sist pro­duc­ers. The huge build­ings are reg­u­larly emp­tied for weeks and san­i­tized to pre­vent any bac­te­rial dis­eases from break­ing out, say of­fi­cials.

‘As good as French foie gras’

“The qual­ity of our raw foie gras is the same as in France and even bet­ter, due to the good con­di­tions dur­ing the rais­ing of the birds,” ac­cord­ing to Volex. But all this not­with­stand­ing, nei­ther Bulgaria nor Hun­gary have the ca­pac­ity to con­quer tra­di­tional French mar­kets. Al­though the bird flu cri­sis has slashed 25 per­cent of France’s ex­ports in 2016, the coun­try has mas­sive stocks due to over­pro­duc­tion in pre­vi­ous years.

In 2015, France pro­duced around 19,000 tons of foie gras, while Bulgaria came a dis­tant sec­ond with 2,500 tons and Hun­gary third with 2,000 tons. France’s ex­ports stood at 5,000 tons in 2015. By com­par­i­son, Bulgaria and Hun­gary to­gether sell be­tween 3,000 and 4,000 tons abroad an­nu­ally, ac­cord­ing to data from pro­duc­ers’ or­ga­ni­za­tions.

How­ever, their eyes are now fo­cussed on the bur­geon­ing ap­petite for lux­ury prod­ucts in Asia. “We have ex­panded our pres­ence in Ja­pan and also started re­cently to sell in Sin­ga­pore and Thai­land,” said a Hun­gar­ian pro­ducer, re­quest­ing anonymity. “They can­not match de­mand by solely buy­ing from France.” —

AFP

MILEVO: Work­ers pre­pare ducks on Novem­ber 8, 2016 on the pro­duc­tion line of a foie gras (duck liv­ers) near the south­ern vil­lage of Milevo. —

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