Nation’s first ban on foie gras taking effect

Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King used civil disobedience to champion their causes.

Soon, the makers and users of foie gras may join them.

On July 1, California imposes a ban on any product that is “the result of force feeding a bird for the purpose of enlarging the bird’s liver beyond normal size.”

To create foie gras, a delicacy highly prized by some chefs and gastronomes, involves force-feeding ducks or geese to boost the size of their livers.

Violating this impending ban on using the fatty liver or other parts of a duck that has been “force fed” can result in a fine of up to $1,000.

Animal protection groups – who support California’s ban, the first of any state — say the ducks’ living conditions and the tube placed down their throats to artificially fatten their livers is inhumane.

“Every other meat product or animal product even if it involves fattening an animal up, doesn’t include jamming pipes down their throat,” said Bryan Pease, (CQ) co-founder of the Animal Protection and Rescue League, which sponsored the legislation creating the ban.

Some chefs support California’s ban including Wolfgang Puck who wrote in a February letter that his restaurants stopped serving foie gras in 2007 as part of a “broader animal welfare program.”

Prince Charles instructed chefs to remove foie gras from the menus at royal residences. Sir Roger Moore narrates a video condemning the foie gras. Argentina bans its production.

Earlier this year, a group called CHEFS — the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards – was formed by California chefs to fight the looming ban, which was approved in legislation signed on September 29, 2004.

Rather than a ban, the chefs proposed changing state law to require foie gras sold or made in California to follow more humane growing practices raising the ducks, who are killed before they reach four months, in a cage-free environment and feeding them no more than what scientists say they should consume each day.

Such a change in law would effectively nullify the ban by allowing California chefs to continue to buy foie gras from the two American companies that make it, both of which use those methods.

 “If we’re a state that considers itself a leader we should insist on humanely raised ducks,” said Patrick Mulvaney, owner and chef at Sacramento’s Mulvaney’s Building and Loan. “To take a tool out of the arsenal we would be using in a kitchen is a shame.”

Prime foie gras, which sells for $60 or more a pound, is a $120 million market in California, Mulvaney says. The biggest in the country.

The breast and legs of force-fed ducks – as well as the feathers – are also sold.

Although the chef coalition has submitted a draft bill to the Legislative Counsel’s Office for review, it still sits there — making any reprieve on the demise of foie gras in California extremely unlikely before July 1.

Legislative leaders say they might revisit the issue in January – but not until then.

 “I certainly am not encouraging any action or time spent on this issue right now. We’ve got a lot of other things to do,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, in early May. “We have higher priorities.”

And so opponents of the ban are now weighing a strategy of defiance and test legal cases to determine what – if any – foie gras complies with the law.

The efforts by the chefs to undercut the law mightily ruffle the feathers of its author, former President Pro Tempore of the Senate, John Burton.

 “I believe that force feeding is a very inhumane practice. It is very painful to the animals,“ wrote the San Francisco Democrat, now chair of the state Democratic Party, in an April 30 letter to his former legislative colleagues.

 “If these chefs have any doubt about that, they could sit at a table and have someone cram whatever food they like, including foie gras, down their throats and see how they like it. I urge you to reject this bogusly named organization and forget about doing anything and let the bill take effect.”

And that’s what will happen on July 1, shuttering California’s only foie gras maker, Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras, a business begun more than 25 years ago by Guillermo Gonzalez and his wife Junny. Gonzalez was recently interviewed by the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. His last ducks will be slaughtered on June 21.

The reason the ban didn’t take effect for more than seven years is Gonzalez’s wish that his children would graduate from college before his livelihood was wiped out, sources say. His youngest child was 15 in 2004 when the bill passed.

Foie gras, literally translates to “fat liver.” Cramming geese with food is depicted in Fifth Dynasty Egyptian art – some 4,500 years ago. The Egyptians noticed herons along the Nile gorging themselves and created a way to mimic the action. Both the Egyptians and later the Romans stuffed the birds with figs.

The force-feeding is called gavage. It takes about 30 seconds to grab the bird, insert the 8-inch to 12-inch tube, pour in the cornmeal mush, remove the tube and release the bird.

Foie gras fans say ducks have no gag reflex and, as part of their natural behavior, stuff themselves before migration.

For their first three months, the ducks are simply allowed to grow but then begin a 21-day force-feeding regime, more than tripling the size of their one-third of a pound livers and culminating with their slaughter.  

The country’s largest maker of foie gras – and after July 1, the only one – is Hudson Valley Foie Gras & Duck Products in New York, which processes an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 ducks each week.

Hudson Valley believes their production practices allow their foie gras to still be sold after July 1 in California, which represents 20 percent of its business.

But absent legislative action, proving their case will likely require legal tussling.

Hudson Valley’s argument goes like this:

Burton’s legislation, SB 1520, defines force-feeding as a “process that causes the bird to consume more food than a typical bird of the same species would consume voluntarily.”

While it employs gavage, Hudson Valley says the ducks receive no more than what they would normally consume.

 “We use scientific peer reviews but also take into account climate and use weekly test groups of ducks to determine what they will voluntarily consume. From that we create a meal size – a meal that their stomach is comfortable holding at this particularly time on this particular day,” said Rick bishop, Hudson Valley’s marketing director. 

Bishop says he’s uncertain what course the company will take on July 1 but stresses that the changes Hudson Valley has made in how it creates foie gras are both beneficial to the ducks – and Hudson Valley’s bottom line.

 “Everything we’ve incorporated to enrich the habitat has improved our quality. It hasn’t been an expense to the farm, it’s been a net gain,” Bishop says. “We’ve become the preference. If you’re feeling guilty somehow about foie gras, you can eat Hudson Valley in clear conscience.”

Being able to continue eating Hudson Valley foie gras in California will likely require a judge’s OK – at least until lawmaker
s change existing law – an occurrence that will likely be later rather than sooner.

 “The economy is having problems. There are problems with the state budget. Why would any legislator try to waste the public’s time on this? It’s truly an issue of the 1 percent,” says Pease.

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