Foie Wars

Force-feeding amounts to either animal farming or grotesque torture, but do our chefs give a duck?

Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer and co-author Jim Mason, in their book The Way We Eat, ask whether callous farming practices are too high a price to pay for the provision of cheap food to the masses. In the foie gras debate, the question of cruelty concerns a luxury item lapped up almost exclusively by the affluent. Bernstein, however, thinks such distinctions should not be made. "Isn't eating any animal a luxury?" Besides, she adds, "Foie gras is part of something much larger than just an appetizer worth twenty bucks. It has given work to people, fed families, helped cities, and been part of cultures for a long, long time."

About 5000 years, more or less. Ancient Egyptians are credited with discovering the delectability of domesticated duck and goose livers. Noting that the birds would gorge themselves prior to long migratory flights and use their livers to store the protein, the Egyptians mimicked this instinct by force-feeding them, albeit in lesser quantities than today. In the Roman Empire, geese were stuffed with fresh figs (which somehow seems gustatorially kinder than corn mush), and after slaughter, the fatted livers were plunged into a bath of milk and honey to further swell and flavor them. The fact that certain palmipeds have a genetic inclination to binge leads some people to proclaim force-feeding to be the extension of a natural physiological process, not a pathological one. Others argue that no bird would gluttonize itself to anywhere near the state brought on by gavage, and that the species of duck used in foie gras production neither migrates nor overeats.

In relatively modern times, the tradition of foie gras was perpetuated and developed in certain regions of France, especially Alsace and the Southwest, where the preservation of food in fat was vital to feeding the population; that's where terrines, torchons, and pâté de foie gras come into play. In 1998 the USDA certified eleven French foie gras producers for exporting to the United States, which ended decades of black-market livers being smuggled here inside fish bellies and wheels of cheese. Just two years later the U.S. developed new procedures to protect against possible contamination in the production process, but the French resisted, complaining the rules were expensive and unnecessary. In response, the USDA decertified four of the eleven French producers and, in 2004, enacted a full import ban on raw livers until facilities were brought into line.

America could afford to set strict standards, because by this time we had our own foie gras farms. Hudson Valley Foie Gras was opened in upstate New York in 1982, and four years later Sonoma Foie Gras was launched on the West Coast. Hudson is the larger of the two, processing 7000 ducks per week and providing around 60 percent — or 220 tons — of all duck liver consumed in the United States each year. Yet while Hudson has had to deal with its share of zealous animal activists, Sonoma has borne the brunt of anti-foie-gras fury. Actually fury might be putting it mildly.


[Trotter] cooks like a guy who's never been fucked properly.
— Chef/author Anthony Bourdain, lashing out at Charlie Trotter after the renowned Chicago chef removed foie gras from his menu

Actress Loretta Swit tearfully compared the abuse suffered by ducks to Abu Ghraib. At the other end of the field, New York Times editor Lawrence Downes reported, "It was unnerving to see the tube going down, and late-stage ducks waddling bulkily in their pens, but no more so than watching the epic gorging at the all-you-can-eat buffet at Shoney's, where morbid obesity is achieved voluntarily, with knife and fork." That's funny. But no one was laughing when the children of a California chef were threatened.

"My friend Laurent Manrique was partner in a company, Artisan Foie Gras, that was looking to open stores on the West Coast," explains Pascal Oudin. "One day he came home and found his house painted red with graffiti. And some people had videotaped his children going back and forth to school. They buried the cassette in his garden and called him to recover it. The FBI became involved and offered protection to his family."

Manrique had been chef and co-owner, with Guillermo Gonzalez, of Sonoma Saveurs, a restaurant specializing in foie gras. Gonzalez, a Salvadoran immigrant, also runs Sonoma Foie Gras with his wife Junny. Their children, too, were photographed in an ominous manner, and vandals poured cement into water lines at their Sonoma farm, causing $60,000 worth of damage. Saveurs was burned to the ground. The Animal Liberation Front claimed credit.

Of course such isolated, incendiary incidents draw media attention — that's their main purpose — but nothing has discredited the movement more. Van Aken says, "I'm extremely put off by the tactics of a few of these activists ... and I have felt that the radical fringe was the real engine behind this animus." Bernstein relates, "I've received anonymous hate letters, warning me that if I used foie gras much longer, I would have to pay. Does it make sense to try and cause harm to others rather than on animals?" Bloise is likewise wary of the anti-foie-gras camp: "If I have to choose between the opinion of activists led by emotion or the official opinion of the American Veterinary Medical Association [AVMA], a well-respected organization speaking for over 71,000 doctors across the country ... well, the decision is easy."

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