Inside California's foie gras ban

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

Daniel Duane

“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.

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