Inside California's foie gras ban

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

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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