Foie gras fans on both coasts are fearing the worst as legislation has been introduced in California and New York -- the locations of the only foie gras producers in the United States -- to make the production of the delicacy illegal.
The movement to ban foie gras in the United States gained momentum last Friday when California state Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco), introduced SB 1520. If passed, the measure would ban the sale and production of foie gras in California and impose fines of up to $1,000 per day, per bird on foie gras producers.
The bill "prohibits the force-feeding of a bird for the purposes of enlarging its liver" and the "sale of a product in the state if it is the result of a bird being force-fed."
Similar legislation is pending in New York state, home to Hudson Valley Foie Gras. Bills S5153 and A01821 would "make it unlawful to force-feed a bird by hand or machine, for the purpose of fatty enlargement of the bird's liver." It does not, however, ban the sale of foie gras that was made elsewhere. If passed, the amendment to the state's agriculture and market laws would take effect Nov. 1.
Foie gras has been the subject of renewed controversy among chef and restaurateurs, animal-rights activists and consumers, raising issues about animal cruelty, freedom of choice, farming methods and overall food safety.
The California bill comes in the wake of last summer's acts of vandalism against Sonoma Saveur, a restaurant in downtown Sonoma that specializes in artisan-made foie gras, and against two of its owners, well-known San Francisco chef Laurent Manrique and his business partner, Didier Jaubert. The two men's homes were vandalized and an estimated $60,000 of damage was done to their Sonoma restaurant site.
Sonoma Foie Gras, California's only foie gras producer, was invaded by animal-rights activists protesting conditions under which foie gras is produced. Its owner, Guillermo Gonzalez, is also a partner in Sonoma Saveur.
The controversy over foie gras production centers on two major points of contention: the confinement of ducks and geese in individual cages that allow for little movement, and the process of force-feeding the birds, which, in industrial-scale facilities, is often done with a pneumatic pump. Foie gras production has already been outlawed in a number of European Union countries.
Michael Ginor, co-owner of Hudson Valley Foie Gras, said foie gras production is an "easy target" for animal-rights activists. Ginor said ducks at Hudson Valley are never confined to individual cages, but spend the last three-and-a-half weeks of their existence confined in 24-square-foot cages with 10 ducks to a cage. He also said ducks at his facility are fed the "old-fashioned way," using a plastic funnel inserted into the duck's beak, not a pump.
Teri Barnato, national director for the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, based in Davis, Calif., and one of the sponsors of the California bill, said the production of foie gras involves "force-feeding an animal way beyond its normal appetite, so that the animal becomes ill and would die if not slaughtered."
"I think if the public knew they were purchasing a diseased part of the animal, or of the cruelty involved, they wouldn't buy foie gras," Barnato said.
But the ducks may not be the only ones suffering.
Gonzalez said his life has been upended, first by activists breaking into his farm, and most lately by the possibility that he may no longer be able to farm in California.
Gonzalez defended his business, saying, "Like any other farming operation, there are things that can be improved. It is not a five-star hotel; it's a farm, and it is a constant and ongoing process."
Proponents of foie gras say that ducks and geese normally overeat prior to migration in order to store energy in their livers. In addition, Gonzalez, who does not confine his ducks to cages, says he has aspirations of "setting an industry standard" for humane treatment of his animals. "In France, the feeding process may stretch out over 11 to 13 days," he said. "Ours stretches out over 17 days, because the amount of food we deliver at each feeding is smaller in order to cause less distress to the ducks."
Ken Frank, the chef-owner of La Toque Restaurant in Napa Valley, who is widely respected for his support of sustainable and humane farming operations, defended Gonzalez. "Guillermo probably runs the most humane foie gras farm on the planet," he said. "For as long as I have known him, he has resisted adopting farming and feeding technologies that most of his competition use."
Larry Bain, director of operations at Jardinière restaurant in San Francisco, said the focus on foie gras obscures the broader issues of food safety and humane treatment of farm animals. "There is nothing that is crueler than the standardized farming system such as confinement hog factories, battery chicken operations and feed-lot cattle production," he said. "My feeling is that John Burton focusing on foie gras is very much like the focus we've had on mad cow disease, in that we're turning a blind eye to the fact that our food system, from top to bottom, is unsafe."
Noted chef and author Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, said foie gras production was low on her list of priorities. "There are just a lot more important things to ban," she said. "How about banning super-sized Cokes -- things that are creating diabetes and killing people?"
If Burton's controversial bill becomes law, Gonzalez will likely lose his foie gras business. He said customers at Sonoma Saveur would probably "miss the foie gras, but it [the restaurant] will not go down. On the contrary, we will probably have more sympathy from consumers. They will realize how unfair this whole ordeal has been for us."
Gonzalez said he will stay focused on delivering sound information about foie gras production to legislators and the public. "As this bill goes through the process, I only hope that common sense will prevail, that legislators will to listen to facts rather than to emotions."
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