Foie Gras Feud: Restaurants and France Fight Back

foie-gras-debateA new culinary battle is brewing in America. On July 1, the state of California banned the sale and production of foie gras, prompting an uproar from upscale restaurant owners and diners alike. A French delicacy, foie gras, pronounced “fwah grah”, is fattened duck or goose liver served as a mousse, pate, or complete organ. Characterized by a rich buttery flavor, foie gras has been beloved by sophisticated palettes for more than 2,000 years. Why has something so timeless and popular been banned? The controversy stems from the way foie gras is produced. Ducks and geese used to produce foie gras are force fed through gavage, a technique in which a tube is inserted down the animal’s throat to feed it a steady stream of grain. Many believe that gavage is harmless to ducks and geese, who do not have gag reflexes. However, animal rights activists caution that this practice may indeed be physically painful for the animals and could cause psychological problems.

The foie gras ban began in 2004, when then governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the law, which prohibits the sale and production of products from force-fed birds in California. The law included an 8 year grace period, ending July 1, 2012, allowing the state’s sole foie gras producer, Sonoma Foie Gras, and California restaurateurs time to make changes to their businesses. Failure to comply with the law could result in fines of up to $1,000 per day, a hefty penalty considering the slim profit margins of most restaurant owners.

Although the consequences of not obeying the law are steep, many restaurateurs are choosing to keep foie gras on their menus, using loopholes in the wording of the legislation to “legally” provide their customers with the delicacy. Located on an old military base now owned by the National Park Service, Presidio Social Club has not removed foie gras from its menu. The restaurant’s owner claims that the law is not valid for their location because the restaurant lies on federal land. Other restaurants, including Chez TJ in Mountain View and Hot’s Kitchen in Los Angeles, are giving foie gras away for free as an addition to entrees, claiming that the law does not specifically ban distribution. In San Francisco, chefs at Palio d’Asti will prepare foie gras, but only if the product is brought in by customers.

In addition to California restaurant owners, officials in France are also fighting the foie gras ban. Phillipe Martin, president of the general council in the Gers, an area in France specializing in goose foie gras, is urging restaurants in France to stop selling California wines. However, Martin’s request is unlikely to have much of an impact upon California’s wine industry: France represents only a small portion of California’s $1.4 million annual wine exports.

The impact of the foie gras ban upon California restaurants has yet to be fully understood. Many doubt that the law will remain in effect (it is already being challenged in court). Do you think the foie gras ban will last?