Log In / Join Now

harvey steiman at large

Foie Gras Kerfuffle

New law in California being challenged, flouted
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jul 12, 2012 2:59pm ET

I have been ambivalent about the foie gras ban that took effect in California July 1. It doesn’t affect my food choices, as I gave up the fatty delicacy years ago—a double whammy of high cholesterol and a tendency to gout on my part. And while I am generally with the animal rights folks when it comes to clubbing baby seals and exposing inhumane farming practices, I wonder whether this controversy should have risen to the level it’s reached.

It has been quite the spectacle in California, though. In the weeks leading up to the ban restaurants around my town (San Francisco) offered special “farewell to foie gras” menus and chefs loudly grumped about having to do without. Now that the ban has taken effect, at least two Bay Area restaurants think they have found a way around the law. Michelin-starred Chez TJ in Silicon Valley is offering it as “a gift” to diners who order the chef’s menu. And the Presidio Social Club has kept it on the menu on the grounds that it is on federal land (the decommissioned Presidio army base) and therefore exempt from California laws.

I am no legal scholar, but it strikes me that these are pretty shaky legal grounds. Requiring someone to buy something in order to get a gift makes it something other than a gift, and presumably Presidio Social Club is not exempt from local health inspectors, nor is it exempt from paying state taxes. The animal rights folks behind the ban are promising to picket both restaurants if they persist.

The point is that battle lines have been drawn over a delicacy that is not really critical to our well being. It also strikes me that many of the chefs and restaurateurs who so stubbornly insist on continuing to serve foie gras are also true champions of humane and sustainable practices when it comes to everything else on their menus. That ought to give us pause.

At the heart of the issue is whether it’s torturing the ducks to force feed them. The process, called gavage, makes their livers become rich, fatty and distended. This horrifies anyone who might anthropomorphize animals. But it’s also legitimate to ask if this really does harm to the ducks. They do come right up to the handlers, raise their heads and open their mouths to get the feed, suggesting that they like it. Animal scientists tell us that, in the wild, ducks swallow whole fish half as big as they are, so their throats and bodies are built to take in large amounts of food in one gulp.

Is a fatty, distended liver healthy for a duck? The answer would seem to be no if the duck were expected to live out its life as a pet. But if it’s going to be killed for food, then isn’t the issue whether it suffers in the interim? From what I can see in videos, pro and anti, the ducks seem pretty happy.

Beyond that, the implementation of the law is clouded. Supporters of the ban argue that the foie gras and restaurant industries had seven years since the ban was enacted, and they have no grounds to object at this late date. Supporters of foie gras argue that the seven-year lag time was promised so that researchers at University of California at Davis, the state’s leading agricultural research college, could find alternate methods of feeding the ducks. And then the same politicians who championed the ban pulled the plug on research money.

Lawsuits have been filed, of course. A consortium of foie gras producers claim the ban too vaguely defines what constitutes a product made from illegally overfed ducks, and unconstitutional because it interferes with interstate commerce. Animal rights groups have petitioned the USDA to extend the ban nationally.

Meanwhile, wine merchants in southwest France have reportedly taken California wines off their shelves in solidarity with their neighbors in France’s largest foie gras production region. Of course, that will not have much of an impact on the wine merchants’ income, or California’s, as they don’t sell much California wine in rural France.

In the end, this is all symbolic. Both the Los Angeles and San Francisco police departments have said they don’t have any idea how to enforce the ban. Meanwhile, foie gras producers in California are dead in the water. Which gets us back to where we were already: angry animal activists protesting chefs and restaurateurs, and me standing on the sidelines scratching my head.

Richard Gangel
San Francisco —  July 12, 2012 4:14pm ET
Harvey, as for your legal arguments against the Presidio Social Club's ability to ignore the ban on the sale of foie gras, I don't think that the question of whether or not they must follow the law because of their requirement that have to abide by health inspections and their paying of state taxes makes any difference. First, the restaurant is probably incorporated in the state of California and thus is required to pay state taxes no matter where it is located. I would like to know if they have to pay the city payroll tax since they are not technically located within the city limits. Furthermore, there is the question of whether or not Indian reservations in the state are subject to health inspections in their casinos even though they are not subject to state laws in other areas. That is not to say that the restaurant may be totally safe in their legal argument that they can serve the foie gras. As for the SFPD, they seem to be taking the same attitude that they have toward the use and sale of marijuana: benign neglect. It's not a high priority item in the list of criminal behavior.

As for your health issues, how can you drink wine as you do with a tendency toward gout? I would think that wine consumption would create many problems with the condition. If not, you are very fortunate.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  July 12, 2012 4:50pm ET
Wine is the least problematic of alcoholic beverages for gout. And alcohol in general is a relatively mild trigger. The big culprits are purines, which are abundant in organ meats. Hence my personal abstinence from foie gras. Not that I am averse to a taste now and then—but the only time I've had a problem is when I eat too much food with purines, so I stop at a bite or two.
Scott O'Neil
Denver, CO —  July 13, 2012 7:35am ET
Personally, I don't blame any CA restaurant for trying to work around the ban. What about non-gavage foie gras like Eduardo Sousa? Geese and ducks will naturally gorge themselves in the fall in order to prepare themselves for winter. Enlarged livers from gorging is a natural thing for geese/ducks; the only unnatural thing is doing it year-round with a mechanical system. As you stated, watching the animals during gavage, they certainly don't seem to be responding as if they're being tortured! Foie gras has simply become a convenient attack point, due to its obvious status as unnecessary luxury, but the bans (and in some cases actual physical attacks) seem hollow and misinformed if you know the history of foie gras, which began LONG before the industrial age.
Steve Trachsel
Poway, Ca. —  July 13, 2012 4:35pm ET
Didn't Chicago do this some years back? I seem to remember 25 course foie gras dinners before the ban took effect. Don't remember the law lasting too long since government has more important things to worry about..and California definately has more to worry about. As for me I love foie gras and can't stand others telling me what I can or can't eat..I really hope everyone comes to thier senses and allows this tasty treat back on Cali menus
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  July 13, 2012 7:06pm ET
Yes, Chicago has gone through this, and has since repealed. I'm finding many of the insights about how it's produced (from Harvey and other readers) to be illuminating, actually. I am starting to think it's so not a big deal. But legislating against foodstuffs? It's INSANE. Earlier this year, NY talks about limiting sugared soda sizes. It's not always pretty, but the law of this country ought to allow people the freedom to consume what they like, period. Don't like it? Don't buy it.

I must say, as a person who would not normally order foie gras (for reasons of doubt about the cruelty issue) I found the time during Chicago's ban to be more personally unpleasant than the knowledge of how it is produced. Imagine, during the ban, walking past a picket line of zealous protestors, just to try to enter a restaurant to have dinner. Well, since I'm not planning to order foie gras, why should I be the target of their rude attacks? Why should I have to see their asinine signs outside the window as I'm dining? But they attack everyone in the name of "free speech". I don't think this helps anything, so I come down on the side of "free eats". I was EXTREMELY glad when Chicago saw the light and repealed the ban. More wide-spectrum historical infomation here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/29/california-foie-gras-ban_n_1635542.html
James Moseley
Rome,GA —  July 14, 2012 6:10pm ET
Perhaps the rest of the country should avoid taking vacations in California (except the wine regions) until
this idiotic law is repealed. I don't want a bunch of nutty liberal politicians deciding what I can and cannot eat. Good to hear about the Chicago repeal, though; now I can put them back on my travel list.
Jan Fridrichsen
Birmingham, AL —  July 18, 2012 10:13am ET
Drink full strength black cherry juice (Knudsen's) for gout. Works like a champ for me.
Ted Hudgins
Naples, FL —  July 19, 2012 1:10pm ET
I remember an episode of Ludobites where he was preparing foie gras in some obscure So Cal Mexican restaurant and of course the picketers were blathering on outside. His response was I love foie gras and I'm always going to cook some f****** foie gras!" The protests did exactly what they didn't want to happen: more people ordered foie than ever before. I'm with him. The picketer's need to find a more worthwile pursuit.
Jim Mason
St. John's —  July 22, 2012 6:36am ET
I visited a duck farm in the South of France last fall at a family run operation called La Ferme du Gubernat. The ducks undergoing gavage appeared happy enough and did not look stressed. Fat yes but the gavage process takes only about 10 days to 2 weeks and then they are killed in a humane method. The operators are very respectful of their animals and the ducks are pretty much pampered through the entire process. The animal rights folks need to move on in my opinion.
Daniel Braun
Princeville, Hawaii, USA —  July 23, 2012 10:25pm ET
I personally don't eat meat at all and yet am perplexed by the foie gras ban. The birds don't have it nearly as bad as industrial chicken, pig, or cow meat farms. It seems silly to focus on a particular food when foie gras can also be produced humanely. A perceived luxury is an easy scapegoat. The same arguments for a ban could be made for the bacon on your breakfast table.
John Lahart
New York NY —  July 24, 2012 11:01am ET
What a lot of people do not understand is the real motivation behind these laws.
Google around and one will realize the end game. That end game is banning the "use" of all animal products via the elevation of animals to equal status with humans. Sound extreme? Again, a minimal amount of Googling will turn up some pretty wild stuff.
Switzerland has enacted legislation that states that plants have "rights."
Is this extreme enough?

Tom Blair
Little Silver, NJ —  August 13, 2012 1:56pm ET
John -

I have heard the scream of the tomoto as it is dropped into boiling water to blanch it and it is NOT a pretty sound. We should all be more respectful towards our vegetal brothers and sisters.

Tom

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.
Most Recent Posts

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.