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Last call for California foie gras

Farming, restaurant industry unable to overturn state bill banning the delicacy

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On July 1, the culinary delicacy foie gras will no longer be served in California’s restaurants, to mixed emotions.

California Senate Bill 1520 bans the force-feeding of birds (in particular ducks and geese), and the sale of their enlarged livers.

Chairman of the California Democratic Party, John L. Burton, introduced the bill to legislature, at the behest of several animal rights organizations and concerned citizens, when he was in the State Senate. SB 1520 was signed into law on Sep. 29, 2004.

“It’s not the foie gras itself that’s the matter, it’s the manner in which these animals are fed,” Burton said. “If someone did that to a human that would be considered torture.”

The bill is directed towards the practice of gavage — defined as forced feeding, either of animals or humans, by inserting a tube in the throat and using a force pump.

Opponents of the ban argue that waterfowl do not suffer from gavage. They make the case that ducks and geese lack a gag reflex, because anatomically their windpipe is in the middle of their tongue allowing them to breath during the feeding process.

“It’s a simple concept, and for these companies not to understand what they are doing is inhumane, it’s ridiculous,” Burton said. “Our bill could have banned foie gras immediately, however, we gave companies like Sonoma Foie Gras ample time to tone down their practices or seek alternative methods.”

Burton is referring to a provison in the bill that gave a “seven and one-half year period for persons or entities engaged in agricultural practices that include raising and selling force fed birds to modify their business practices.”

Sonoma-Artisan Foie Gras is one of three foie gras providers in the United States and the only farm in California. Founder/Owner Guillermo Gonzalez originally supported the bill. However, he claims Burton did not meet an obligation of financial assistance that was agreed upon in 2004.

“The state was supposed to assign funds so one of California’s agricultural universities could conduct research and perform a scientific study validating or negating whether the methods used in our foie gras production were acceptable,” Gonzales said.

“The funding never materialized and without a study to exonerate our methods and my business, we have no choice but to close now.”

According to Gonzalez, Sonoma-Artisan Foie Gras will shut its doors at the end of June. The family owned company has more than 20 years of experience in the farming and production of foie gras.

“Our goals have always been to produce the highest quality food products using humane and ethical practices, create employment, and live the American dream,” he said.

In 2006, the city of Chicago passed a similar law outlawing the sale of foie gras. Due to an outcry from local chefs and politicians, the ban was repealed in 2008.

California is the first state to pass a bill restricting the sale and production of foie gras. And unlike Chicago’s ban, SB 1520 has a lot of support from city officials and local grassroots organizations.

Bryan Pease is the executive director of the Animal Protection and Rescue League (APRL), and has been a strong advocate of the ban.

“When most people see how foie gras is produced, most people will agree foie gras should be banned,” he said. “It is a humanly cruel practice. The ducks are fed until they have a hard time walking and breathing.”

The San Diego City Council has commended APRL for its effort to ban animal cruelty. According to the APRL website, “85 percent of San Diegans support a ban on foie gras.”

“The farms slaughter half a million of ducks a year,” Pease said. “If they want to raise ducks for slaughter, the compromise is they can sell duck liver, they just can’t force-feed them.”

According to Pease, there is a farm in Spain that raises geese free range for the sale of foie gras, and allows them to eat as much as they want.

Hudson Valley Foie Gras and La Bella Farm, Inc., both located in Ferndale, N.Y., will soon be the only two foie gras farms in the country.

“The whole world will be watching to see what happens in California,” said Rick Bishop, National Sales and Marketing Director for Hudson Valley. “Unfortunately the FG industry does not have the power or money to fight the state.”

Bishop said Hudson Valley has opened up its farm for tours. “It is our hope to educate the public by allowing people to decide for themselves if the treatment is inhumane,” he said.

Hudson Valley has been in business since 1998, and was the first farm to combine all the stages of production in one location.

“Prohibition doesn’t reward progress,” he said. “People will find an alternative means to consume foie gras.”

A number of San Diego’s restaurants have already taken foie gras off their menus. However, there are a few restaurants that are waiting until the July 1 deadline before removing the delicacy.

Currant American Brasserie, located in downtown San Diego, is just one restaurant that will serve foie gras until the cut-off date.

“I think it’s a shame that California wants to ban foie gras,” said Executive Chef Walter Manikowski.

“The chefs I’ve worked under instilled in me a great respect for the ingredient,” he said. “Not to mention the great history of chefs who have made a reputation with foie gras, from Escoffier to Point to Bocuse and beyond.”

Activists have not intimidated Manikowski. His $20 foie gras burger is still a staple on his menu.

“Who knows, we may even do a foie gras dinner to celebrate its departure from California,” he said.

-Patruno is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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