Protecting animals, liberties or political careers?
By Leslie Bilderback 09/06/2012
On July 1, a California law went into effect that banned the sale of foie gras. This delicacy is the liver of a goose---or more frequently these days, a duck---artificially fattened through force-feeding. This indulgent morsel, historically relegated to white-tablecloth stature in the upper echelon of gastronomy, is rarely purchased, or even tasted, by the majority of Americans. But once it hit the 5 o’clock news (repeatedly), even people who have never, and would never, dare to even try it, have an opinion about it.
Immediately after the ban took place, restaurateurs across the state, like all good Americans, found loopholes. A restaurant in San Francisco’s Presidio, a national park, claims it is subject to federal law, which trumps state law, and therefore it need not limit the amount of fatty duck liver it continues to serve up to gourmet rebels on a nightly basis. Because the ban specifically prohibits the sale of the liver, restaurants around the state have instituted a BYOFG menu policy, offering to cook foie gras that you bring in yourself. Others are serving it for free, albeit on a $50 slice of baguette.
But these foie enthusiasts are the exception, and most places have ceased preparation of foie gras. It’s not that most people are law-abiding, per se. (One look at the guy texting in the next car is proof of that.) It’s simply the prudent thing to do, considering that outspoken advocates of foie gras are suddenly embroiled in costly lawsuits instigated by animal rights organizations. Running a restaurant is costly enough without picket lines at your hostess station.
The law specifically prohibits the sale of meat that is produced à la gavage. From the French gaver (to force down the throat), the term refers to force-feeding, in which up to 900 grams of corn and fat are sent through a tube (traditionally a long ceramic funnel, now a mechanized steel or rubber hose) into the duck’s esophagus several times daily throughout its last 21 days of life. This engorges the liver to 10 times its normal size. (A normal duck liver weighs about 75 grams, while a force-fed liver can weigh up to 980 grams.)
Animal rights groups claim this is painful and unnatural. In that, they are not 100 percent correct. Wild migratory birds gorge themselves annually, packing on fat in the liver and under the skin in preparation for their long flight. A fattened liver is not a sick liver, nor is it necessarily unpleasant for Donald. And while force-feeding is certainly unpleasant for humans, the duck’s anatomy is different from ours. (Your first clue: We don’t have feathers.) They do not possess a gag reflex, because their food is stored in a sort of esophageal holding pen while it awaits digestion (similar to how a snake digests... for those of you who have read The Little Prince). Because their throats are designed to swallow huge fish whole, a small tube does not appear to bother them. This is documented very nicely by several journalists who have visited, with welcomed cameras, America’s biggest foie gras producer, Hudson Valley Farms.
The surprisingly delicious accidental discovery of naturally fattened livers was likely the origin of the force-feeding. It began, as did many disgusting things (embalming, slavery) with the ancient Egyptians. It is believed that Jews discovered the naturally fatty livers and rendered them in kosher cooking (an ancient precursor to schmaltz). The pharaoh apparently caught whiff of this, as evidenced by relief carvings from 22nd-century B.C. Egyptian tombs, showing the force-feeding of geese. Pliny the Elder speaks of force-feeding with dried figs, and Roman recipes appear in Apicius for iecur ficatum, fig-stuffed liver.
But just because something is old and traditional does not mean it is a good and right thing to do. True, the ducks processed in the U.S. do not appear to be miffed by the force-feeding and, on the whole, seem to be leading better overall lives than the majority of livestock in America. But the amount we force-feed them is much more than they would voluntarily ingest in the wild. Then again, we happily consume all kinds of stuff that isn’t natural. (Enter Cheetos.)
Unlike meat produced by factory farms, with animals inhumanely crammed in cages, loaded with drugs and hormones to prevent disease, living knee-deep in their own filth, U.S. foie gras operations (there are only three) operate relatively stress-free duck environments (less stress, say some veterinarians, than ducks have in the wild). Film of ducks trapped in poor conditions does not appear to be from this country. Here the ducks show no abnormal signs of the disease, sores, damaged esophagi or high mortality rates that the animal rights organizations are claiming. Then again, force-feeding is, by definition, unnatural.
The controversy has revived interest in natural foie gras, most notably from Eduardo Sousa and his label, Pateria de Sousa, in southwest Spain. His geese have run wild for generations, gorging themselves annually on acorns, olives and flowers in their idyllic Spanish pastoral Xanadu. The foie gras they produce is delicious, award-winning and feeding tube–free.
So it is fair to ban this food? Or should inhumane treatment of all animals be the thing we ban? The answer seems obvious. But if we banned all inhumane treatment, widespread factory-farm closures would devastate our economy, not to mention our year-round outdoor barbecuing habit. There are, no doubt, lobbying forces at work to discourage such a move. Putting one foie gras farm out of business has less of an environmental impact but looks, on the surface, as though legislators are taking a stand.
I do not agree with outspoken foie gras fans that this ban limits our rights. I still have the right to eat abused animals, and I can get foie gras this very minute if I really want it---just like I could get crack if I wanted it. But like the war on drugs, a ban on foie gras does not address the underlying problem. I am similarly unconcerned about a potential foie gras black market. It ain’t whiskey, and this ain’t Boardwalk Empire. But like Prohibition’s Temperance League, the ban has succeeded in making self-righteous Californians think they are saving animals. Banning a food that the majority of people would never eat anyway is like a Christian giving up pickled herring for Lent. It misses the point.
It’s a shame all this energy cannot be funneled into an attack on the factory-farming practices that overwhelm our food supply, producing, in California alone, more untreated waste than is created by the country’s entire human population, and contributing to a host of environmental, public-health, economic and food-safety problems. Proposition 2 was, at least, a start. Why not jump on that bandwagon and start to bring about real change?
So what is the point? It’s a good food, don’t get me wrong, and one that I have enjoyed on numerous occasions. Yet I would happily give it up if it meant addressing the wider issues of food safety and animal cruelty. But that doesn’t appear to be what’s happening.
As is usual in the world of food (and laws), the more you know, the more you wish you didn’t know.
Leslie Bilderback, a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author, will discuss “Becoming a Chef” and demonstrate recipes from her upcoming book, Mug Cakes, at 3 p.m. at Good Eats Pasadena: Food, Music & Art on Sept. 8. The free event runs from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 23 S. Madison Ave., Pasadena. Bilderback is a South Pasadena resident who teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.