Inside California's foie gras ban

What the polarizing 2012 ban means for chefs, restaurants, and the way we think about food

Seared Foie Gras with Ginger Cream

James Carrier

I love foie gras. I love foie gras on toast and I love foie gras seared. I love it stuffed into hamburgers and, most of all, I love it poached in the French form known as torchon. Like an excellent steak or ice cream, buttery luscious foie strikes my palate as a fundamental human ecstasy, revealing something undeniable about our physiology. So I will dearly miss eating foie gras—which means “fatty liver” in French, and typically comes from ducks or geese—if a California ban goes into effect as planned on July 1.

I will not, however, miss the controversy surrounding it, which creates a moral headache for home chefs like myself, or for anyone who cares in equal measure about sheer deliciousness and the ethics of what we eat.

Most of the time in the West, these two concerns align gorgeously. The organic produce at a good farmers’ market is tastier and easier on the earth than industrially grown fruits and vegetables. Pasture-raised chicken and eggs, along with sustainably raised meats, are simultaneously healthier, more humane, and better tasting than their factory-farmed counterparts. In other words, all you’ve got to do to feel virtuous is find the best ingredients you can.

With foie, it’s not so simple. When I signed up for a foie gras dinner at Alexander’s Steakhouse in San Francisco—part of a statewide series to fund efforts to amend the ban­—I hoped to get some clarity on the issue and bid one of my favorite foods farewell. The beneficiary of the evening was the Golden Gate Restaurant Association and its new pro-foie advocacy group, CHEFS—Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards—which supports the creation of stricter farming standards for foie gras instead of a ban. Before I even got inside the restaurant, though, I realized that foie might not fit neatly into my culinary worldview. 

Start with the protesters on the sidewalk from PETA—People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—who waved photographs of the farming technique on which foie gras production depends. Known as gavage, the French word for “force-feeding,” it requires pushing a tube down a duck’s or goose’s throat two or three times a day for the last few weeks before slaughter, inserting food directly into its stomach.

There is a farm in Spain that manages foie gras production merely by creating a cageless paradise for geese—a kind of avian Land of the Lotus Eaters, where birds can feast on acorns and figs. Migratory geese apparently fly to this farm unbidden, discover everything they’ve ever wanted, and then stay, gorging themselves and never leaving, despite the total lack of confinement. But this farm does not yet export, and although some have tried, nobody has successfully replicated their methods. For all practical purposes, therefore, foie gras equals gavage. Taking a position in the foie gras controversy, by extension, means taking a position on force-feeding.

So as I stepped between the protesters and descended the staircase into the private dining space at Alexander’s Steakhouse, it was impossible not to feel rattled, and I learned that other diners felt the same way.

 

“I’ve already picked him out,” said the woman next to me. “The planted mole, I mean, the one who’s going to start screaming in the middle of the dinner.”

When the man seated on my other side introduced himself as Rob Black, head of the GGRA, I said, as a joke, “Oh good, that means you can reassure me that we won’t get firebombed tonight?”

“I’m afraid I can’t,” Black replied. “We’ve actually notified the FBI and local law enforcement.”

As I scanned the room for exits, I realized I’d had no idea how strong the passions were on both sides of the foie divide—the chasm between the chefs here tonight who were donating their time to keep foie legal, and the protesters outside, who see the ban as an important skirmish in the larger war over animal rights.

As Bruce Friedrich of Farm Sanctuary, a ban sponsor, told me, the goal of animal rights is to apply the Golden Rule—i.e., do unto others as you would have them do to you—“across the species barrier.” 

This seems eminently sensible—philosophically unassailable, even. So when Friedrich explained that, in the minds of people like him, “a few product systems stand out as the most gratuitously abusive, and foie gras makes that unfortunate short list,” it made me seriously reconsider eating it. Plenty of moderate voices agree with Friedrich, like the Humane Society of the United States, which spent nearly $10 million helping to pass Proposition 2 in 2008, creating California’s Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act. I voted for Prop 2 and felt proud that California was leading the nation by limiting extreme confinement of egg-laying hens, veal calves, and gestating sows.

A handful of prominent chefs have likewise spoken out against foie gras, including Chicago’s Charlie Trotter and, at times, our own Wolfgang Puck. But the vast majority of California chefs, or at least of California chefs outspoken on the subject (Puck, Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, and Suzanne Goin all declined to be interviewed for this article), side with foie gras farmers convinced that gavage is not cruel. They point out that ducks and geese do not have a gag reflex. David Kinch, owner of the two-Michelin-star Manresa in Los Gatos, California, puts it this way: “The problem is that people attach human emotions to animals. ‘Oh my god! Can you imagine a steel funnel jammed down your throat?’ Well, ducks don’t have throats like ours. Their throats are made to swallow whole fish with fins fighting for their lives.” 

Chef Ken Frank, who rocketed to culinary stardom at his restaurant La Toque in Los Angeles, made repeated trips from L.A. up to Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras, the only California producer. “For vegetarian activists,” says Frank, who later moved La Toque to Napa, “it’s almost an article of faith that humane foie farming is impossible, but when I went to look, I didn’t see anything that rose to the level of cruelty.”

Obviously Frank isn’t a veterinarian or a biologist, which is why it’s also interesting to look at the findings of the American Veterinary Medical Association, which sent members to observe foie gras farming in upstate New York. Those members testified that foie gras birds appeared better off than most factory-farmed poultry, and confirmed the view that the throats of birds used for foie gras are lined with a cornified epithelium, “a very tough esophagus that can accept a great deal of abuse,” in the words of Dr. Walter K. McCarthy, a New York State veterinarian.

 

Those were the thoughts I tried to keep in mind during the first course of the night: marvelous smoked foie shaped like a little fallen tree limb and decorated with morel mushroom “moss.” But then came a sumptuous seared version with freshwater eel, followed by a numbingly decadent Wagyu steak with a foie gras crumble. I devoured every bite, but I also found my mind wandering toward still other questions of food ethics. Wagyu beef, after all, requires cattle bred for obesity and then fed in ways that trigger extreme overeating. Eel populations are crashing due to unsustainable fishing. I’ve taken pretty strong positions against all this stuff over the years, so why was I having so much trouble coming to a clear conclusion on foie?

I found my answer in a big, boring 1998 report from the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare. Even as it recommended that gavage be stopped, the report acknowledged the absence of conclusive scientific evidence on its harmful nature, citing a French study that failed to find any evidence of stress or fear in the blood-hormone levels of force-fed ducks. The report also explained that, while gavage can be lethal if continued over a long period of time, waterfowl naturally gorge themselves before migration; fattening of the liver is a normal part of that metabolic process. And yet, it still concluded that foie gras farming should stop—in part because committee members had seen ducks avoiding the workers assigned to feed them. 

The harder one looks, in other words, the muddier the foie question becomes. This is doubtless why, when the ban was passed back in 2004, legislators put off its implementation until 2012 and promised state funds for University of California at Davis researchers to study whether or not gavage is inhumane. For whatever reason, those funds did not materialize, and the research never happened. 

That promised science may never get done, and we can’t just throw up our hands in the meantime. Instead, we have to plumb our own hearts with imperfect data. That’s cold comfort to Guillermo Gonzalez, the El Salvadoran immigrant who built Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras from nothing, creating a strong family business in his adopted land: He will close his doors forever on July 1, when California law mandates fines of up to $1,000 per infraction per day to anybody producing or selling (but not buying) foie gras in the state.

Some restaurateurs—and certainly some foie customers—will look elsewhere.

“There’s no doubt there will be a black market,” says Frank. “It will not be hard to get. Prohibition doesn’t work.” Frank adds that black-market foie production—new farms in Nevada perhaps, or other nearby Western states, geared to supply California—won’t have any incentive toward humane production. “It’s a luxury item. People want it; they will still get it.”

California restaurateurs may even follow the example of Chicago chefs during that city’s short-lived 2006 ban: offering complimentary foie with every glass of certain highly marked-up wines. As for home chefs, there’s always the Internet. The law doesn’t forbid buying the stuff in California, after all, just selling it. But even making that perfectly legal choice will depend on knowing where you stand morally. My own problem, after looking into all of this, is that I remain about 85 percent convinced by the arguments on both sides. And that creates a moral muddle that’s anything but appetizing.

 

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