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Last Hurrah for Foie Gras

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Foie Gras salad
Asparagus and artichoke salad, with mizuna, toasted oats and foie gras.

Unless something surprising happens, Californians will no longer see foie gras on restaurant menus starting July 1. A 2004 state bill enacted the ban, championed by then state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, who told KQED's Forum he doesn't profess to be an expert on foie gras. He just wants to stop the force feeding of birds. "I don't know why chefs can't make something that tastes like foie gras that doesn't mean they have to torture birds to do it."

The legislation gave California’s sole producer, Sonoma Foie Gras, seven and a half years lead time to develop an alternative method of production considered humane. Founder/owner Guillermo Gonzalez tells KQED “Our last flock of ducks will be out of the farm by mid-June.”

In large part because of the lead time, many of California’s high end chefs say they were caught off guard. In an 11th hour protest, more than 100 signed a petition on behalf of the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards (aka CHEFS) and sent it to Sacramento. It’s unclear how effective they can be politically, even though many have spent the last half year throwing foie gras themed dinners/fundraisers for the cause.

Russell JacksonLike Food Gal Carolyn Jung, I attended the last “FU Fois Gras rEvolution” held by Russell Jackson, the chef/owner of the now closed Lafitte Restaurant. He still sells t-shirts that say "I've got your foie gras right here, m!@#$%f^&*er." (Did I mention this is a heated debate?)


What really gets in Jackson’s craw about SB 1520 is language he feels opens the door for California regulators to shut down most, if not all, poultry production in California.

“How big was your turkey at Thanksgiving this year?” he asks. “Read the law. It's there, in black and white.” He actually read part of the law to diners at Lafitte before they tucked into a six course meal starring foie gras.

Section of SB 1520
For purposes of this section, the following terms have the following meanings:

(a) A bird includes, but is not limited to, a duck or goose.

(b) Force feeding a bird means a process that causes the bird to consume more food than a typical bird of the same species would consume voluntarily. Force feeding methods include, but are not limited to, delivering feed through a tube or other device inserted into the bird’s esophagus.

I put Jackson’s charge to Bryan Pease, Co-founder and Board Chair of the Animal Protection and Rescue League  in San Diego. He replied “The law focuses narrowly on the cruel practice of force feeding ducks or geese to enlarge their livers beyond normal size. It would not affect any practices related to chickens, turkeys, or ordinary duck or geese farming, in which the birds can eat as much as they want but are not FORCED to eat (in this case with a long metal pipe) more than they would voluntarily.”

How you “read” the videos that depict the process of gavage (force feeding) depends on which videos you watch.  If you take Anthony Bourdain's word for it, “a few angry, twisted people” are misreading a process less objectionable than what you see people do to each other for a “pay per view film on the hotel channel.” If you take Kate Winslett's word for it, ducks and geese suffer a “terrifying and painful process” before being killed “for their diseased and bloated livers.”

Diners at FU Fois Gras rEvolution
Butcher paper blocks the diners' view of United for Animals protestors, but not their signs.

Jacques Pépin told Bay Area Bites he feels the activists "have no idea what they are talking about. And the worst is that they are righteous."  Wolfgang Puck was one of the famously righteous chefs on the anti-foie gras side, until he was discovered serving it at private events, upon request.

Some predict a black market will develop, with the illicit goods smuggled in from places like New York, France and China. As Adrienne Hill reported for NPR, Chicago chefs and diners found a way around a foie gras ban there. That said, it's much easier to circumvent a city-wide ban than a statewide ban.

As I reported for The California Report and NPR, animal rights activists estimate some 300 restaurants around California still serve foie gras. The protestors are mobilized to meet the chefs and diners wherever they meet to eat it.  Dana Portnoy told me outside Lafitte that groups like  United for Animals and the Animal Protection and Rescue League have such a strong sense of urgency “because the ducks are being tortured on a daily basis until the ban takes effect.”

Here's the California Report story that aired May 9.

Julie Gillen of United for Animals
Julie Gillen of United for Animals ran around to a back window as Lafitte diners ate six courses of foie gras, from appetizers to dessert.

Here’s a handy (but hardly comprehensive) list for foie gras fans and protesters alike. As you can see, the heavy concentrations are in LA, SF and Wine Country:

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