One of the best things about food is its subjectivity. What we eat is mostly dictated by our likes and dislikes, with no primary driving force beyond our tastebuds. But, sometimes ethics will intervene, and in extreme cases, the law. On July 1, California will be bound by the most sweeping anti-foie gras statute in the world. Consumed by few, the pricey delicacy made from duck or goose’s liver is lusted after by chefs and diners for its rich, singular flavor and versatility on the plate for everything from hot dogs to ice cream. Despite its limited production (compared to the no-less controversial factory farming of beef, chicken and pork), foie gras has been a common rallying cry for animal rights and vegetarian activists across the world. Like many of the world’s most coveted ingredients, foie gras suffers from a bit of an ethical foible: the force-feeding required to enlarge the duck or goose’s liver in the final 2-3 weeks of its life (“foie gras” is, after all, French for “fat liver”).
The key question is whether the process, called “gavage,” of putting a tube down the animal’s throat rises to the level of actual animal cruelty. Foie defenders will tell you that gavage is almost second-nature to ducks and geese, whose bodies happen to be built to seasonally gorge themselves to prepare for migration. Their esophagi expand easily and they lack a gag reflex, so the process isn’t as uncomfortable — if it’s uncomfortable at all — as we might be led to believe. Foie opponents contend that the practice, which swells the animals’ livers to many times their normal size, is inherently inhumane.
At least 14 countries now have some sort of foie gras ban on the books, though most of these only target its production — not possession or consumption — through laws banning force-feeding as part of larger animal cruelty measures. The two exceptions to this are Chicago’s short-lived ban and California’s impending law, which not only prohibits foie gras production but also bars shops and restaurants from selling it. It’s the closest thing to a scorched earth victory foie gras opponents might ever see.
See the timeline below for a brief history of these measures.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signs into law a ban on the sale and production of foie gras starting in 2012. “This bill provides seven and a half years for agricultural husbandry practices to evolve and perfect a humane way for a duck to consume grain to increase the size of its liver through natural processes,” he said in his signing statement. “If agricultural producers are successful in this endeavor, the ban on foie gras sales and production in California will not occur.”
After a campaign by animal rights groups, the city of Chicago bans the sale of foie gras by a vote of 48 to 1, making it the first city in the U.S. to do so. The measure, enforced only through citizen complaints, fines restaurants $250, then $500 per offense after an initial warning. Upset with being told what they could and could not serve, in acts of civil disobedience one day after the ban, chefs who didn’t typically have foie gras on their menus nonetheless serve it in various forms.
Mayor Richard M. Daley, who called Chicago’s ban the “silliest” ordinance the city had ever passed, puts forward a bill to repeal it. The City Council votes to overturn Chicago’s foie gras ban by a vote of 37-6.
France and Germany get into a a diplomatic kerfuffle after a major German food fair prohibits the inclusion of French foie gras. Alain Fauconnier, a Socialist member of France’s senate, remarked, “It’s unbelievable. It’s like banning German sausages in France. The economic cost is enormous.”
While the U.K. has banned the production of foie gras, it can still be served at restaurants. Most supermarkets, however, prohibit the sale. Celebrity butcher Jack O’Shea was escorted out of Selfridges supermarket for illegally selling foie gras to customers that knew his secret password. Two months later he was fired from his post.
Several prominent chefs and restaurateurs who oppose the California ban form a coalition in protest. They host elaborate foie-filled meals. Due to increased demand in California, the price of foie gras nearly doubles and becomes harder to find. At the James Beard Awards, chefs sport “Save The Foie” pins.
Brandishing a less common strategy in the fight to ban foie gras, leading animal rights groups file a lawsuit against the USDA claiming that foie gras is inherently the product of diseased birds, due to their oversized livers, and therefore is illegal under existing USDA regulations.
California’s foie gras ban takes effect. Violators risk fines of up to $1,000. The sole producer of foie gras in California, Sonoma-Artisan, will cease operations on July 1.