Foie Gras Kerfuffle

New law in California being challenged, flouted
Jul 12, 2012

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.

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