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Foie Gras: Love It or Hate It

Michelin starred Chef Gary Danko sells about 40 orders of foie gras a night at his San Francisco restaurant. But when foie gras protesters visit his place, “the amount of orders doubles,” he says.

Animal-rights advocates protest the production and selling of foie gras in California, if not the whole United States, as the production of the delicacy is said to demonstrate extreme cruelty to animals. Chefs in the state will have to take out their foie gras specialties from their menus in elegant menu holders by July next year, when California becomes the first state to forbid the serving of the dish, under a law that was passed in 2004.

The force-feeding of ducks and geese in producing fattened liver (/fwa:’gra:/ is French for fat liver) “to satisfy the whims of some people,” as advocates say, has become significantly controversial in the past years. The issue is the manner of feeding the fowls, done with a metal or rubber tube that is inserted in the birds’ esophagus. And after deliberating the issue for years, allowing producers to look for alternative ways in feeding the birds, the state of California is finally passing the law to enforce the ban.

The rich, delicate and buttery flavor of foie gras is brought about by the especially fattened liver of ducks and geese, its taste far from that of these birds’ ordinary liver. The fattening is generally achieved through force-feeding or gavage method, which dates back to as far as 2500 BC, when ancient Egyptians kept birds for food and fattened them by way of force-feeding. Egyptian workers would grasp the geese around the necks to push food pellets down their throats.

Modern gavage is now done by using a funnel that is fitted with a 20-30cm long tube, fed by pneumatic pumps, which drives the feed into the bird’s esophagus. This system normally takes an operation time of about 2 to 3 seconds.

Now let’s look at the arguments that have been going on. Animal advocates find it cruel to force a tube down one’s throat, even if that throat belongs to a clueless duck or goose. Just the very idea of it displays brutality and utter disregard for the rights of animals.

Foie gras lovers and the food’s producers counter that it might look cruel, but the birds are not hurt at all. Studies done by the National Institute of Argronomic Research have shown that the ducks and geese who have undergone force-feeding do not exhibit any signs of aversion towards the men who force-fed them, which means that the animals do not associate the experience as a harmful one. “The lack of nociceptive pain activity or costicosterone blood vessels, which indicates if there had been stress during the feeding process, means that the fowls do not experience pain or stress at all,” the report says.

Geese and ducks, being omnivorous animals, have naturally expansive throats which allow them to store huge amounts of food to an enlarged portion of their esophagus, while waiting for their stomach to digest–quite similar to how pythons feed themselves.

But the argument doesn’t end there, though. During feeding, the insertion of steel pipes into the birds’ throat sometimes leads to the inflammation of its esophagus, which leads to the death of the fowls.

Some chefs have already relented to the new rule. Thomas Keller, who has three Michelin stars for French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, California, and three stars for New York City’s Per Se, said he will abide by the law. “Foie gras is a delicacy that we have loved to prepare for our guests over the years, and has been a regular in our menu in quality menu holders,” said Keller. “But we will of course comply with the foie gras ban once it has taken effect.”

There are those who relented, then changed their mind. Traci Des Jardins, chef and co-proprietor of the French restaurant Jardiniere in San Francisco, said she has tried removing foie gras from her specialties, but had to bring it back. “My guests wanted it and asked for it. Foie gras is an attractive gourmet food that diners want to eat when they go to a fine dining restaurant.”

Others want to fight the ban. “I think we have to get together and contest the rule,” said Roland Passot, chef and owner of Michelin starred La Folie located in San Francisco. “We all eat meat. We raise these animals so we can eat them, not raise them to be our pets.” But he said once they have fought and the law still takes effect, he would abide by it.

Ariane Daguin, owner of foie gras distributor D’Artagnan in Newark, New Jersey, said they have formed the Artisan Farmers Alliance, a group composed of foie gras industry players, and they intend to contest the California law. “We are right now eyeing at various ways to overturn the law, encouraged by the success we had in Chicago in 2008,” he said. Chicago was the first city which outlawed foie gras in 2006, but they modified the regulation in 2008, and consequently lifted the ban.

Enthusiasts of the gourmet food are conflicted as well. “I appreciate the fact that force feeding is unpleasant business. Yet, is it any worse than the other procedures used to produce some foods that we consume? Chicken and pigs are raised to be slaughtered,” one diner said. “And if I think too much about my vegetables, I would think of the abused, overworked and underpaid farm workers who maintain them. We just can’t over-analyze everything.”