Foie and Its Discontents
Carolyn Jung / May 2012
With California’s foie gras ban set to take effect July 1, a slew of the state’s chefs hold last-hurrah dinners as protesters howl. And behind the scenes, a stir to amend or repeal the law.
The playful fluff of foie gras cotton candy on a stick at Bazaar in Los Angeles. The unlikely foie-infused vodka cocktail at Lafitte in San Francisco. And the classic foie gras au torchon with chicories and red walnuts at The French Laundry in Yountville. Come July 1, all will disappear from menus, when California becomes the only state in the nation to ban the sale of foie gras. The luxurious fattened liver of a goose or duck, a delicacy that’s been consumed for millennia, dating to ancient Egypt, is made by just three major producers in the United States: Hudson Valley Foie Gras (the largest) in New York, La Belle Farm, also in New York, and Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras, the only one in California. A pricey product that sells for upwards of $110 for one 1.8-pound lobe, foie gras (French for “fat liver”) may be the ultimate “1 percenter” of ingredients, consumed by few and perhaps misunderstood and lambasted by far more. It’s proved a gastronomic lightning rod over what the French call “gavage,” the process of speed-feeding geese and ducks via a tube inserted down their throats to engorge their livers, a process animal rights groups denounce as barbaric “force-feeding.” This has galvanized restaurateurs and chefs against animal activists, carnivores against vegetarians, and even chefs against one of their own, Wolfgang Puck, after it was recently discovered that the world-famous Los Angeles chef/mogul may have eliminated foie gras from all his restaurants in 2007 but has continued to serve it at private events upon request.
Now, a statewide coalition of chefs and restaurateurs has embarked on a last-ditch effort to sway legislators to overturn the impending law that would criminalize the sale of foie gras and carry a fine of up to $1,000 per day. Calling the ban unfair, unwarranted, and unenforceable, they have mobilized with petitions and fund-raising dinners. They insist that foie gras can be raised humanely. Just as California has often taken the lead in enacting ground-breaking environmental measures, they believe the state has an opportunity to institute model legislation instead for stricter farming standards with audits and certifications that would make it the bellwether for the entire foie gras industry worldwide.
Overturning a law once it has taken effect, especially one this polarizing and impassioned, is never easy. Still, it’s not unprecedented. Efforts to ban foie gras have been quashed in 12 other states. Chicago initially outlawed foie gras in 2006, but reversed itself less than two years later. Already, California restaurateurs and chefs have managed to get a spot bill put in place in both the state senate and assembly. That move affords them time to seek out sponsors for the bill before the specific language of it is hammered out. If the bill gets through policy committees, it will then go to the floor of both the senate and assembly. If passed by both, it will go before Governor Jerry Brown. If he doesn’t veto or sign the bill, it becomes law without his signature.
“Our feeling is that if you ban a food product, just as alcohol was during Prohibition, you make it sexy and more desirable, plus create a black market for it, with less humane raising of the animals elsewhere,” says Rob Black, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, a nonprofit representing more than 1,000 San Francisco Bay Area restaurants, which has helped lead the charge against the ban. “When you ban it in California, all you do is put one immigrant farmer out of business. However, if you regulate foie farming to require humane standards based on science, you can use the power of the California economy to change farming worldwide.”
Beginning July 1, California Health and Safety Code 25980-25984 will allow any police officer, animal control officer, or humane society officer to issue a citation if anyone force-feeds a bird for the purpose of enlarging its liver beyond normal size or if any product is sold in the state that is the result of such feeding. But just how diligent enforcement will be in an already overburdened state that’s debt-ridden and has laid off countless police officers in recent years is anyone’s guess. As it is, the decision to prosecute violators is at the discretion of the city attorney or county district attorney overseeing each particular jurisdiction. Moreover, the law doesn’t address the issue of purchasing foie gras outside the state and transporting it into the state for personal consumption. Nor does it weigh in on residents buying foie gras online, where the point of sale is outside of California. Neither the Sonoma city attorney, nor spokespersons for the state attorney general, nor San Francisco County district attorney would comment on the interpretation of this impending law.
To raise awareness and grassroots support for foie gras, the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards, made up of restaurateurs and other culinary professionals, has hosted dozens of foie gras dinners throughout the state since December 2011—from La Toque in Napa to Cyrus in Healdsburg to Alexander’s Steakhouse in San Francisco to Bice in San Diego to Mulvaney’s B&L in Sacramento. Roland Passot, chef/owner of La Folie in San Francisco, was the first chef to write a check to the organization for $1,000. Two “You Gotta Fight for Your Right to Foie” dinners, held at Animal restaurant in Los Angeles last year for $175 per person, sold out a total of 300 seats in 17 minutes and had a waiting list of more than 100 people, according to Jon Shook, co-owner and co-chef. Animal, which offers as many as five foie gras dishes nightly, also began donating $1 from the sale of each of those dishes to CHEFS. In just two weeks, $1,000 was raised. CHEFS plans to host more such dinners across the state up until the July 1 deadline, an action that animal welfare organizations have deplored.
“I’ve heard about these dinners,” says Paul Shapiro, spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States. “It’s a rather juvenile response to a commonsense anti-cruelty law.”
Of course, not every restaurant is rebelling against the impending ban. Bon Appétit Management Company, which operates more than 400 cafes for major corporations, universities, and museums in 31 states, declared in February that it would cease serving foie gras, as part of its new animal welfare policy. In 2007, Puck, one of the country’s most high-profile chefs, took a very public stance against foie gras, deciding he would no longer serve it at any of his restaurants worldwide, including 22 fine dining establishments. Moreover, in early February 2012, Puck issued a letter to fellow chefs, imploring them to follow his lead in supporting the upcoming law. That action riled chefs after it was revealed that Puck has continued to buy from Hudson Valley Foie Gras since early 2010, according to Rick Bishop, Hudson Valley Foie Gras’ director of marketing.
“We do, unfortunately, have private events where people want foie gras on their menu,” says Stephanie Davis, director of communications for the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group. “We do our best to steer them in a different direction, but sometimes people just want it.”
That response did not sit well with other chefs. “You send out a letter like that to other chefs, yet still serve it to your own clients for money? That’s called being a hypocrite,” says Chris Cosentino, chef/owner of San Francisco’s Incanto. “It’s sad and disheartening that you not only sell your soul, but then go against your own beliefs, too.”
Foie gras on the menu has proved a veritable bull’s-eye for restaurants lately. Animal’s Shook says he had to request police assistance when animal rights protestors once tried to enter his restaurant’s foyer. Lafitte, which has hosted sold-out foie gras prix-fixe dinners monthly since October 2011, had its building surrounded by about 60 protestors one evening last November, including one wielding a bullhorn, says chef/owner Russell Jackson. He also says they have tried to sabotage his reservations system, booking 30 reservations online in one night, only to not show up. “I never thought of myself as an activist,” says Jackson, who has organized an online petition against the ban that now numbers more than 1,000 signatures. “I’m a guy who cooks food. But I’m willing to fight for this.”
Even seafood-centric Providence in Los Angeles has at times been inundated with a couple hundred phone calls a day from callers demanding that chef/owner Michael Cimarusti not serve foie gras. “If there were support for this law, we’d have foie gras on our shelves, rotting and not selling,” Cimarusti says. “But obviously, that’s not the case. We sell lots and lots of foie gras. Chefs such as myself, who are mobilizing against this, think it’s just such folly.”
Although Oakland’s Bay Wolf held one pro–foie gras dinner this year, it cancelled a sold-out second one after screaming protesters disrupted diners on the patio at the first event. Other times, the demonstrations have been more subdued. A handful of peaceful protestors outside The French Laundry in 2010 were famously served cookies and lemonade by the Michelin three-star restaurant. Chef/owner Thomas Keller says he will abide by the ban in California but will continue to serve foie gras at Per Se in New York City, Bouchon Bistro in Las Vegas, and his other establishments in those two cities.
Although the Taj Campton in San Francisco decided to take foie gras off its menu in March after learning of a planned protest outside its doors, other restaurateurs say the protests have actually been a boon for business. Animal typically sells about four lobes of foie gras a night, Shook says. But when protestors show up, the number of orders doubles. At La Folie, Passot says he’s been selling more foie gras than ever before—about 80 lobes a week. “People are ordering more because they’re concerned,” says Passot, who was born in France, where foie gras is king. “We are taking the right of choice away. This is the tip of the iceberg. What food will be next? They want us all to become vegetarians. It makes no sense.”
The war over foie gras in California erupted in earnest in 2003, when San Francisco chef Laurent Manrique was poised to open Sonoma Saveurs, a specialty shop in downtown Sonoma that was to be supplied by Sonoma Foie Gras. Before it even opened, it was vandalized. Appliances and walls were spray-painted, and plumbing plugged to flood the floors. A month before that, both Manrique’s home and his business partner’s house were spray-painted. The chef, a practicing Buddhist, found his sacred Buddha statue in his backyard damaged. Manrique’s car windows also were etched with the words, “foie gras is animal torture” and “murderer.” Most chillingly, a videotape was left behind that showed Manrique’s family relaxing inside their home. Accompanying it was a letter that warned them that they were being watched. The Sonoma shop eventually did open, but closed a little over a year later because of slow business. During that same time, members of the Animal Protection and Rescue League broke into barns at Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras, located in the Central Valley, to steal four ducks, one of which ended up dying.
John Burton, then-state Senate president pro tempore and now chair of the state Democratic Party, introduced the legislation to ban foie gras. Passed by the state legislature and signed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004, the law was structured to take effect in 2012 in order to give the foie gras industry time to instigate changes.
Hudson Valley’s Bishop says that’s precisely what has happened. All three foie gras farms in the United States feed ducks by hand and keep the birds cage-free. Hudson Valley Foie Gras, which has been in operation since 1981 and produces 400,000 pounds of foie gras annually, is the only one certified cage-free by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2007, it also took the step to work with a humane handling specialist who trained and worked with the esteemed animal science and behavior expert Temple Grandin (see “The Cattle Whisperer”). With the guidance of a Grandin disciple, Hudson Valley instituted a number of improvements for the caring of the ducks, including decreasing the feeding period from 28 to 21 days so as not to stress the birds. Each bird’s crop (or stomach accumulation area) is also checked to make sure it’s empty before it is fed again. During gavage, each bird is fed and cared for by the same person, too, to provide comfort and continuity. Food and water were placed apart at opposite ends of barns to encourage the birds to walk farther to help strengthen their legs prior to gavage. Air-conditioning and black lights were added to holding rooms to keep the birds cool and calm.
“What you see are healthy birds,” says the humane handling specialist, who preferred not to be named. “I saw no signs of stress. The birds were moving and walking correctly. I’m very impressed with the time and effort Hudson Valley put into management of the process, including welfare checks and balances. I really believe they have tried to be industry leaders.”
Hudson Valley also is transparent with its operations, Bishop says. In the past few years, it’s opened its doors to 1,000 tours of its facility by culinary students, journalists, legislators, school kids, and chefs. That includes Lafitte’s Jackson, who spent five hours at the farm last year and witnessed the feeding of the birds. They are fed three times a day with a tube an inch in diameter that carries six ounces of pellets made mostly of corn, says Bishop. The birds, which breathe through their tongue and can swallow fish whole, have no gag reflex. In nature, they also increase their consumption naturally to enlarge their liver for migration. Jackson, who donates money to the Humane Society annually, says he saw nothing at Hudson Valley that made him think the birds were mistreated.
After studying production practices in general, the American Veterinary Medical Association declined to take a position on foie gras. The Humane Society’s Shapiro calls foie gras a “diseased organ.” But the birds are harvested under the watchful eye of USDA inspectors to assure that the duck meat and foie gras are fit for human consumption.
Guillermo Gonzalez never thought he’d find himself in the middle of a firestorm when he started Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras farm in 1986. A native of El Salvador, he learned how to make foie gras by apprenticing on a family farm in France for six months. Riveted by the passionate farm-to-table food philosophy burgeoning in Northern California, Gonzalez was eager to start a farm in Sonoma to supply top restaurants. He still beams when he remembers his first sale to Philippe Jeanty, then chef at Domain Chandon in Yountville in 1986. As orders increased, Gonzalez shifted operations to a larger property in Farmington in the Central Valley, where he now employs nine workers and produces 80,000 pounds of foie gras annually on leased land. He had been in escrow to buy that property in 2003, but when the foie gras bill was introduced, it was clear to him that no bank was likely to loan him the funds needed. So, he pulled out of the deal. An egg producer eventually purchased the property instead. Because that company now plans to increase its egg production, Gonzalez will have to vacate the site when his lease is up on June 30.
“Moving outside of California is not my ideal solution,” says Gonzalez, who is married and has raised two children in Sonoma. “After 26 years, we have made our lives here. We want to stay. It all depends on the political activity now taking place. We are in a mode of wait and see.”
He holds out hope that what eventually happened in Chicago will also occur here. The Humane Society’s Shapiro points out that Gonzalez supported California’s foie gras legislation when it was first introduced. Gonzalez concedes that is true, but says he had no choice. During that time, Gonzalez was faced with three lawsuits filed by the Animal Protection and Rescue League and by In Defense of Animals. He didn’t have the means to defend himself legally, even if he considered the lawsuits frivolous. The legislation, however, granted him immunity from such lawsuits until the law took effect. So, he supported it, believing it the only way to save his family from financial ruin.
Having turned 60 years old, Gonzalez now finds himself faced with the daunting prospect of starting over. “To be forced out of business at this stage in life is very unfair,” he says. “We have been bullied, but I have never wanted to give up. I am convinced that what I do is humane, and that I have a legitimate right to keep the American dream alive that my family and I came in search of and reached.”