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Ducking It Out
The Debate On Foie Gras
By Nicole Niebisch, with Amy Tarr


Last July, Laurent Manrique, the chef of the renowned San Francisco restaurant Aqua, received a disturbing videotape in his mailbox. It contained footage shot from within his garden of his family relaxing at their Sonoma County home in Northern California. The video was followed by threatening notes that stated he and his family were being watched. That summer Manrique’s business partner, Didier Jaubert, was also the victim of what he considers a hate crime. The perpetrators glued the locks of his front door shut and spray painted his home and car with slogans such as, "Foie gras is animal torture" and "Murderer."[1]

Manrique and Jaubert had recently partnered with local farmer Guillermo Gonzalez on a specialty food store and restaurant called Sonoma Saveurs, which features locally made artisanal products. Two weeks before its scheduled opening in October, Sonoma Saveurs was vandalized, with an estimated $60,000 worth of damage. But scare tactics and financial setbacks did not stop the partners from opening their doors for business in mid-October. And the events certainly didn’t stop them from offering on their menu the single item, produced by Gonzalez, that was responsible for these crimes carried out by animal rights extremists: foie gras.[2]

The California State government may ultimately take responsibility for gluing the locks of Sonoma Saveurs and Gonzalez's family farm, Sonoma Foie Gras, shut for good. This past March, California State Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco), Senate President pro Tempore, introduced SB 1520. If passed, the measure would ban the production and sale of foie gras in California. It would not, however, ban the sale of foie gras made elsewhere. Similar legislation has been proposed in New York State, the only other state in the US where it is produced, bringing the foie gras debate to a head among chefs and restaurateurs, animal rights activists, and consumers about the ethical treatment of animals, farming practices, and freedom of choice.

FOIE FACTS
According to an independent research report prepared for the Sullivan County foie gras Producers (the county in which the two New York State foie gras producers are located), America’s appetite for foie gras is increasing as the nation’s culinary sophistication and interest in fine dining grows. Over the last 20 years foie gras production has grown from virtually nothing in the US to 340 tons in 2003. US foie gras sales from producers were $17.5 million in 2003. New York producers accounted for over 71% of the sales, California 16%; France 7% and Canada 6%. Thomas J. Shepstone, who spearheaded the NY State research report, estimates that about 95% of the sales are to restaurants, with the remaining 5% to distributors and individuals. In New York City, 33 of the city’s Zagat-rated “Top 50 Food” restaurants serve foie gras. While foie gras seems to be ubiquitous in fine restaurants these days, total US consumption of this delicacy amounts to only 420 tons per year, a small fraction of France’s annual consumption of more than 17, 500 tons.[3]

FOWL PLAY
PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and other animal rights activist groups such as GourmetCruelty.com are dedicated to stopping the production and sale of foie gras in California and New York. Foie gras, which translates to "fat liver," is made by force-feeding geese or ducks two to three times per day during the last two weeks of their lives through a tube placed down their throats. PETA's website (www.peta.org) asserts, "the goal is to enlarge the animal's liver up to ten times its normal size" and that, "many birds become too sick to walk." These groups contend that the force-feeding process, along with confinement in small cages, causes suffering to these animals that is worse than practices used in industrial chicken and cattle farming. "It's pretty much widely recognized as the worst form of animal farming," said PETA's Dan Shannon. "Most people who learn about the process never eat foie gras again."[4]

In Israel, which has a substantial foie gras industry, the Supreme Court recently ruled that the force-feeding of ducks and geese violates laws against animal cruelty. A number of other European countries have also instituted such a ban stemming from the findings of a 1998 report released by the European Union's Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Welfare. According to the report, injuries and health problems are common at foie gras farms. It concluded that, "force-feeding, as currently practiced, is detrimental to the welfare of these birds."

FREEDOM FARMS
Proponents of foie gras point out that this traditional French dish has been produced by a number of cultures for over 4,000 years. Force-feeding began in ancient Egypt in 2390 B.C. to produce plumper geese.[5] The process is designed to mimic the gorging that ducks and geese do naturally in preparation for migration.

Many artisan farms such as Gonzalez's Sonoma Foie Gras go to great lengths to minimize distress to their birds in the feeding process. Gonzalez says he aspires to set the industry standard for the humane treatment of these animals. While in most French industrial farms the feeding process usually takes place between 11 and 13 days, Gonzalez stretches the period out to 17 days.[6]

Francine Bradley, a poultry specialist at University of California Cooperative Extension at UC Davis commends Gonzales on his methods. "From the beginning [he] wanted to do everything the correct way. They came to the university for advice before they bought their land and birds, and I've always been impressed with the great care they take with their birds."[7] Bradley associates part of the outcry to foie gras with a lack of awareness among urban Americans of what is required in making food. “You have people making decisions about food production based on a concept of animals which comes out of Disney," she says.[8] She also speculates that those who are uncomfortable with the force-feeding process would be equally shocked if they ever saw large fish being swallowed whole by shorebirds.

Another defender of Sonoma Foie Gras is Ken Frank, chef and owner of La Torque in Napa Valley, who is a self-proclaimed animal lover and widely recognized in the industry as an advocate of humane agriculture. "I flew to northern California to watch the ducks at Sonoma Foie Gras," he said. "I've been there several times since. I didn't see any cruelty. I didn't see any suffering animals. I actually saw animals lining up to eat. These were happy ducks."[9]

At Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York State, the leading domestic producer of duck products, co-owner Michael Ginor also assures that his animals are well taken care of. His facility feeds the ducks by hand "the old fashioned way," using a plastic funnel and not a mechanical pump. He also says that for the last three weeks of their lives the birds are housed in 24 square-foot cages with ten ducks per cage, not individual cages where they cannot spread their wings. New York State Assemblyman Jack McEneny, who sponsored one of the foie gras bills, has never witnessed the force-feeding, although he has been invited to Hudson Valley Foie Gras.[10]

While the ducks may be happy, others at Hudson Valley Foie Gras are not. To further complicate this debate, the 80 or so feeders at the farm, all Mexican immigrants, complain that they are required to work 30 days in a row, because if they took a day off, the feeding process would be disrupted and the ducks would become stressed, ultimately impacting the quality and flavor of the foie gras. Izzy Yanay, Ginor’s partner at Hudson Valley Foie Gras, cites that producers in France, Hungary and Israel conducted experiments with backup feeders and concluded that they negatively affected the quantity and quality of the foie gras.[11]

A TOUGH ACT TO SWALLOW
It is not exactly clear how the ethics of foie gras production gained enough momentum to find its way to Sacramento. Compared to other forms of animal farming, domestic foie gras production is so limited it is considered more of a hands-on, custom product. To put things in perspective, there are only three US-based firms that produce Foie Gras - Sonoma Foie Gras in California, and Hudson Valley Foie Gras and La Belle Farm - both in New York State. Many chefs and restaurateurs, who must constantly make decisions about what to offer on their menus and where to buy their products, believe that a focus on foie gras obscures the bigger issues of health concerns and animal cruelty in industrial pig, chicken, egg, and cattle farming. Ginor believes that foie gras production is "an easy target" for animal rights activists.[12] In the US, it is generally regarded as an unhealthy, expensive delicacy enjoyed primarily by the rich.

Sponsors of bill SB 1520 believe the issue boils down to public awareness and education. Teri Barnato, national director for the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, based in Davis, California said, "If the public knew they were purchasing a diseased part of the animal, or of the cruelty involved, they wouldn't buy foie gras."[13] On May 18, the California Senate voted by a margin of 21-14 in support of SB1520 to outlaw foie gras production in California. The bill now goes to the State Assembly.

With his livelihood at stake, Gonzalez is equally committed to educating legislators and the public about foie gras production. "As this bill goes through the process," he said, " I hope that common sense will prevail, that legislators will listen to the facts and not emotions."[14]

For many food lovers this bill is considered an infringement on the freedom to choose what you put on your plate. Dan Scherotter, chef at Palio d'Asti in San Francisco said he added foie gras to his menu in response to the attacks on Laurent Manrique and his partners. "If you don't like foie gras, don't order it. But don't attack the chef who offers it on his menu."[15]

Clearly no one, whether a duck, a goose, a food lover or an animal lover, is comfortable having something shoved down one's throat. Will the legislation in California and New York spell the end of foie gras production in the US? Ought it? What do you think, chefs? Should you keep foie gras on your menu or is it time to take it off?

Let the debate begin.



1L. Alley, “Foie Gras Flap Prompts San Francisco Chefs to Reexamine Menus,” Wine Spectator, September 04, 2003.
2Ibid.
3T.J. Shepstone, “The Economic Importance of the New York State Foie Gras Industry,” March 2004.
4T. Weihman, “American Foie Gras Now Makes The Grade,” Columbia News Services, May 23, 2003.
5H. McKenna, “Friends Turn Foie Gras from Passion to Business,” Reuters, June 17, 2004.
6L. Alley, “California, New York Legislators Propose Foie Gras Ban,” Wine Spectator, February 24, 2004.
7L. Alley, “Foie Gras Flap Prompts San Francisco Chefs to Reexamine Menus,” Wine Spectator, September 04, 2003.
8M. Locke, “A Foie Gras Food Fight-animal rights groups campaign to close California producer,” Associated Press, December 25, 2003.
9L. Alley, “California, New York Legislators Propose Foie Gras Ban,” Wine Spectator, February 24, 2004.
10H. McKenna, “Friends Turn Foie Gras from Passion to Business,” Reuters, June 17, 2004.
11S. Greenhouse, “No Days Off at Foie Gras Farm,” The New York Times, April 2, 2001.
12L. Alley, “California, New York Legislators Propose Foie Gras Ban,” Wine Spectator, February 24, 2004.
13Ibid.
14Ibid.
15L. Alley, “Foie Gras Flap Prompts San Francisco Chefs to Reexamine Menus,” Wine Spectator, September 04, 2003.
 

The Issue:
This year, the California and New York State Senates introduced bills to ban the production and sale of foie gras in their respective states.

The Summary:
America’s appetite for foie gras is increasing as the nation’s culinary sophistication and interest in fine dining grows. But PETA and other animal rights activist groups are dedicated to stopping the production and sale of foie gras in the US, arguing that the force-feeding process constitutes cruelty to animals. Artisan foie gras farms contend that they go to great lengths to minimize distress to their birds in the feeding process.

Discuss This Issue:
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References:
1. L. Alley, “Foie Gras Flap Prompts San Francisco Chefs to Reexamine Menus,” Wine Spectator, September 04, 2003.

2.
T.J. Shepstone, “The Economic Importance of the New York State Foie Gras Industry,” March 2004.

3.
T. Weihman, “American Foie Gras Now Makes The Grade,” Columbia News Services,
May 23, 2003.

4.
H. McKenna, “Friends Turn Foie Gras from Passion to Business,” Reuters, June 17, 2004.

5. L. Alley, “California, New York Legislators Propose Foie Gras Ban,” Wine Spectator,
February 24, 2004.

6. M. Locke, “A Foie Gras Food Fight-animal rights groups campaign to close California producer,” Associated Press, December 25, 2003.

7. S. Greenhouse, “No Days Off at Foie Gras Farm,” The New York Times, April 2, 2001.

Other Helpful Resources
www.banfoiegras.org
www.peta.org
www.GourmetCruelty.com






Published: July 2004
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