California’s groundbreaking foie gras ban went into effect on Sunday, making it the only municipality in the world to ban the product as well as the production of the deadly dish. (Chicago temporarily banned foie gras in 2006, but the ban was repealed in 2008.) Some of the Golden State’s chefs are campaigning to overturn the California ban, but for now, only one state senator, Lois Wolk, is expressing any interest in their cause, and even she will only commit to amending the law to “create an acceptable humane standard for the production of this agricultural product.”
The ban effectively put out of business California’s sole foie gras producer, Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras, whose owners have said that they are mulling over a move across the border to Nevada. For now, the only foie gras producers in the U.S. are in New York, which animal rights activists, like PETA, are eying as their next battleground.
Critics say the foie gras ban goes too far, that it is going after an “easy” target—a niche, luxury product consumed by a few rich people. But former state Senator John Burton, who spearheaded the ban, has little patience for those who defend foie gras. “I’d like to sit … them down and have duck and goose fat—better yet, dry oatmeal—shoved down their throats over and over and over again ,” he has said.
‘The Equivalent of Waterboarding’
Burton says the ban has never been about foie gras per se but about how it is produced. Birds raised for foie gras are force-fed several pounds of grain and fat every day via a pneumatic tube that is rammed down their throats, a process that Burton colorfully describes as “doing the equivalent of waterboarding.”
Force-feeding causes the birds’ livers to expand to as much as 10 times their normal size, resulting in a painful disease known as hepatic steatosis. The enlarged livers are about the size of a small football and put pressure on the birds’ other internal organs, including the lungs, impairing their ability to breathe. The massive livers also crowd the birds’ legs, making it difficult for them to walk. Additionally, force-fed birds often suffer from a host of other injuries, diseases, and infections.
A journalist who visited Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras in 2003 reported that force-fed ducks “moved little and panted” with the effort, and an employee admitted that “[s]ome [ducks] die from heart failure as a result of the feeding, or from choking when they regurgitate ….” An undercover investigation at the farm revealed filthy, bedraggled birds (failure to preen is a sign of illness or distress), birds who were panting and struggling to breathe, birds who were too ill to stand, and even the bodies of dead birds lying among the living.
Production methods at Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras are similar to those at New York’s Hudson Valley Foie Gras. Canadian farms are even worse—some use the iron-maiden–like cages still found (in some cases illegally) on French foie gras farms. An average of 20 percent of ducks on foie gras farms die before slaughter, 10 to 20 times the average death rate on a regular duck farm.
Production Banned in More Than a Dozen Countries
Force-feeding birds has been denounced by poultry experts worldwide, which is why foie gras production has been banned in more than a dozen countries, including Israel, the U.K., Germany, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland, and it will be outlawed throughout the European Union by 2020.
Whether or not California’s ban on the product of force-feeding is overreaching may be moot if a lawsuit filed by animal rights groups in May is successful. That suit argues that because foie gras consists of diseased organs, it is illegal to sell under the federal Poultry Products Inspection Act, which requires that diseased organs be condemned by U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors. If that lawsuit is successful, foie gras would be illegal nationwide, making the California ban look like chopped liver.
Image Credit: Creative Commons photo by Tambako the Jaguar