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By TIMOTHY B. WHEELER
Foie gras, French for fatty liver, is either a signature ingredient at white-tablecloth restaurants - or the most abject form of animal cruelty and unhealthy to boot.
Animal lovers and health advocates squared off yesterday against white-jacketed chefs and restaurant owners over whether Maryland should ban the sale of the delicacy because of what ducks and geese must endure to produce it.
But the emotional clash before a Senate committee in Annapolis lost some bite when the chief sponsor of the bill to outlaw trafficking in the high-price food unexpectedly announced she was leaning against going through with the legislation.
"We care about the animals, and we care about cruelty to animals," said Sen. Joan Carter Conway, who called the force-feeding of fowl to enlarge their livers before slaughtering them "a terrible practice, a gruesome practice."
But the Baltimore Democrat said the bill to ban animal products from force-feeding has "a number of problems." She said she had heard conflicting information before yesterday's hearing before the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, and she's uncertain whether to seek to study the issue over the summer, withdraw the legislation or let it die in committee.
Her views count because she's chairwoman of the committee.
She said she took up the foie gras cause after its original champion, Prince George's County Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt, died in the early days of the session. But the bill has the support of other leading senators, and a similar bill is pending in the House of Delegates.
Del. Tanya Thornton Shewell, a Carroll County Republican, said she likewise has been torn by conflicting information given her by the two sides, but after speaking to a veterinarian in favor of the ban wants to go forward with a House hearing on Tuesday. "Let the experts come in and try to shake this out and find out what's going on for sure," said Shewell.
Proponents and opponents of the ban agreed on little about the production of foie gras at yesterday's hearing, with one side asserting that the birds suffer from being force-fed and become unable to walk, while others said the birds move about freely and seem to enjoy being fed via a funnel put down their throats.
Julie Janovsky, campaign director for Farm Sanctuary, told lawmakers that more than a dozen countries have banned sale of foie gras. So have California and Chicago, while a number of businesses have sworn off selling it, including chef Wolfgang Puck and Whole Foods markets.
"This is an egregious practice, the force-feeding of animals," Janovsky said. She said overfeeding ducks and geese, by inserting a funnel or tube down their throats, makes the birds "incredibly ill" as their livers swell to 10 times normal size.
"We are not harming the ducks," said Izzy Yanay, general manager of Hudson Valley Foie Gras, a farm in New York that produces about 70 percent of the delicacy made in the United States.
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