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Animal Defenders of Westchester
P.O. Box 205
Yonkers, NY 10704


Foes see foie gras as a fat target


June 1, 2006

Izzy Yanay, vice president and general manager of the Hudson Valley Foie Gras farm in New York, holds several newborn ducks who are being bred for their livers to create a delicacy called fois gras.

By Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY

If you have the taste and the wallet for foie gras the way they serve it at Philadelphia's swank Le Bec-Fin, you'd better run over there and order it now. The city may soon join Chicago and California in banning the duck liver delicacy.

That would mean no foie gras gelled with peach compote at Le Bec-Fin, nor foie gras torchon with "seckel pear tatin, vanilla creme fraiche and warm brioche" at The Striped Bass, nor foie gras and fig empanadas at Alma de Cuba.

It would also stop cruelty to ducks, according to animal welfare groups. To make foie gras French for "fat liver" farm-raised moulard ducks are force-fed corn through a funnel put down their necks until their livers expand to at least six times normal size.

Those who love foie gras and those who abhor it agree there's no other way to make the silky food that, when it gets to a restaurant plate, can cost more than $20 for a 2-ounce portion. What's at issue is whether it hurts the ducks and whether local government has any business telling people what they can't eat.

"It's egregious cruelty, and it's unnecessary," says Gene Bauston of the Farm Sanctuary, an animal welfare advocacy group and anti-foie gras campaigner. "Treating other animals that way takes a piece out of our own humanity."

Chefs, restaurateurs and producers say that ducks are not hurt by the force-feeding and enlarged livers, and that banning foie gras is a government intrusion into people's right to eat what they wish. After foie gras, they predict, the next items on the banned menu will be lobster (boiled alive), rabbit (a popular pet) and eggs from hens raised in cages (already eliminated or reduced in the dining halls of 85 colleges).

"The people behind that are not against foie gras; they are against consumption of poultry meat and fish. Foie gras is an easy target," says Ariane Daguin, whose company, D'Artagnan, is the largest retailer of foie gras. "Next lobster, next rabbit. Myself, I believe I'm lucky to find myself on top of the food chain. I think God created rabbits and ducks for me to enjoy. And soft-shell crabs."

Councilman calls it 'torture'

A national push by animal welfare groups to ban foie gras led Philadelphia City Council member Jack Kelly to introduce legislation last week to ban it. "I don't believe in any torture for what, a couple of restaurants in Philadelphia to serve some French delicacy?" Kelly says. In Massachusetts, a bill to ban foie gras production in the state (there isn't any) is before a committee of the Legislature. A previous committee dropped a provision to ban the sale.

It is already coming off the menu in California, which in 2004 set a 2012 deadline to end production and sale. Last month, Chicago imposed its own ban despite protests from chefs and the state restaurant association and ridicule from Mayor Richard Daley. Israel and several European countries have banned foie gras production.

"We have children getting killed by gang leaders and dope dealers. We have real issues here in this city. And we're dealing with foie gras? Let's get some priorities," Daley told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Three duck farms in the USA two in New York and one in California produce nearly 800,000 pounds of duck liver annually, worth about $27 million wholesale. In a process that producers call "gavage," cornmeal is poured down the ducks' throats three times a day for four weeks. The ducks are slaughtered when they are 16 weeks old.

Michael Ginor, owner of Hudson Valley Foie Gras, the largest producer, says ducks naturally gorge and enlarge their livers before the long haul of migration. They have tough throats designed to swallow food whole, including entire fish, and have no gag reflex. If force-feeding is stopped, the liver returns to normal size. "There is no pain," he says.

"The goal of the farmers is to have happy ducks," Daguin says. "Because a happy duck is a good duck."

Bauston, however, says the ducks suffer damage to their throats and can barely walk or breathe because of their enlarged livers. "It's an appetizer, for crying out loud. At what cost? It's gustatory narcissism. What are we willing to do for this flavor?"

Some chefs, most famously Chicago's Charlie Trotter at his eponymous restaurant, have stopped using foie gras. But others, most famously Thomas Keller of the French Laundry Restaurant in Napa County, Calif., don't want to.

"I don't know where you draw the line," says Stephen Starr, who owns a dozen restaurants in Philadelphia, including The Striped Bass and Alma de Cuba. "We probably shouldn't sell chickens either, because it looks like they have a pretty miserable life." But he says he won't object if the city bans foie gras, even if his chefs do.

'The duck's still on the plate'

Brendan Dougherty, chef de cuisine at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, a French restaurant in Philadelphia, serves foie gras. "I love it as a cook," he says. "The way I look at it is, this is something that has been going on for years and years and years. It's a way of life in France." If chefs are going to cook meat, it is splitting hairs to worry about foie gras, he says. "In the end, the duck's still on the plate whether it was stuffed or not."

For all the fighting words, U.S. foie gras production may be on its way out or at least over the border. Last year, Ginor helped draft legislation for the New York Legislature that would have given him until 2016 to stop producing foie gras or take his ducks elsewhere. It was an effort, he says, "to control our own destiny." The bill died in committee. In California, Sonoma Foie Gras will have to end production in six years. But the company may shut down sooner. It has lost its duckling supplier and processor, Grimaud Farms, because Grimaud also does business with Whole Foods, the nationwide grocer. Whole Foods, which hasn't sold foie gras since 1997, won't do business with a company that slaughters ducks for foie gras.

"We've been very clear that we want to partner with other businesses that have the like values of treating farm animals humanely," says Margaret Wittenberg of Whole Foods. "Foie gras isn't included in that list."

Posted 6/1/2006 11:19 PM ET  

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