Ducking the debate: A look at California’s foie gras ban

Sacramento chefs turned lobbyists take to the Capitol in defense of fatty livers

Chefs gather underneath the Capitol dome during foie gras lobbying efforts last week.

Chefs gather underneath the Capitol dome during foie gras lobbying efforts last week.

Here’s a First World food fight: The world’s top chefs facing off against poll-sitting politicians and the F-bomb wielding leader of the state’s Democratic party over the right to render ducks obese and sell their fatty livers.

Of course, such a fowl fracas could only go down under the rotunda of California’s Capitol.

Sacramento born-and-raised chef Adam Pechal put on his kitchen whites last Tuesday, but didn’t start cooking at one his two popular central-city restaurants: He went to work lobbying state lawmakers.

“I’d never stepped foot in that building before,” he admitted, “but then, next thing I know, we are running from office to office. Even some of the lobbyists were saying, ‘We’ve never had so many meetings in a day before.’”

Pechal and more than 100 other California chefs don’t have much time: On July 1, the production and sale of foie gras—duck and goose liver thats been fattened by overgorging or force-feeding—will be banned in the state.

And these chefs’ eleventh-hour campaign to reverse state law—which was authored back in 2004 by then-state senator, now California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton—does not come without controversy.

Critics of foie gras, including activist groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and even Wolfgang Puck, say it’s unethical. They lambast the use of a tube to force-feed birds, a process known as gavage, and say there are disconcerting health issues that arise by fostering a duck’s liver to become upward of 10 times its normal size.

They also say California chefs are ducking the debate: How can they pride themselves on sourcing ethically farmed meats and poultry and fish, but make an exception when it comes to force-feeding birds for their lush livers?

But chefs at the Capitol insist foie gras is misunderstood. Similar to the feeling one gets after Thanksgiving dinner, they argue that ducks and geese in fact embrace the satiety they get from overgorging.

Chefs also point out that the United States’ three foie gras production farms, including Sonoma-Artisan Foie Gras an hour south of Sacramento in Farmington, go to great lengths to ensure that ducks experience decent quality of life before the slaughter. Still, there’s no moral high ground here—all U.S. ducks and geese are force-fed during their final three weeks.

California’s cooks recently formed the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards—or CHEFS, natch. Critics scoff at this humanitarian-minded acronym; CHEFS hope to persuade lawmakers to end the ban and also exploit California’s buying power to improve foie gras production standards from Canada to Israel.

They’ve recruited the Golden Gate Restaurant Association and hired high-priced lobbying outfit Platinum Advisors and founder Darius Anderson—yes, that’s the same guy with the Ron Burkle new-Sacramento Kings-owner connection—to influence power.

But the lobbying so far has been less than ducky. And chefs say politicians’ fear of reprisal from party chairman Burton is a problem.

“He’s got a lot of Democrats scared,” Pechal argued. “He is just an in your face, F-bomb dropping bully.”

It’s true that Burton’s presence looms large. The 79-year-old former lawmaker even sent a memo to assemblymembers’ offices on May 1, insisting they uphold his law.

And Burton—who in the past has praised soy imitation meat over the real thing—was forthright in his dismissal of CHEFS on Michael Krasny’s Forum radio program. “I would suggest that some of these chefs sit down at the table and let somebody just keep force-feeding them, jamming food down their throat into their esophagus, and see if they think it’s a worthy endeavor,” Burton said.

Most chefs liken Burton to a quack. “It seems amazing to me,” began Matt Gordon, a celebrated San Diego chef who flew into Sacramento last week for a six-hour lobbying jaunt, “that there’s no general outcry that someone as respected as the chairman of the party can say he wants to force-feed me.

“He threatened my life. I’m not a duck.”

True, the physiology of ducks and geese is unique. They don’t have nerves in their throats and can devour large fish, oftentimes three times the size of what consumers buy in supermarkets.

Still, European Union studies of industrialized foie gras production abroad revealed problematic health concerns among force-fed ducks, including sometimes maggot infestations in the esophagi. But that’s Europe; domestic farms employ more humane force-feeding practices, CHEFS argue, including using the same feeder and preserving a bird’s access to outdoors and daylight.

The state was supposed to delegate funds to agriculture programs at universities such as UC Davis to research and study gavage as an acceptable means of foie gras production. But upon passage of the 2004 law, Burton reneged on the promise, stating there were no longer monies available.

This infuriated Sonoma-Artisan Foie Gras owner Guillermo Gonzalez, who insists his practices are ethical—and wants the chance to prove it. “I was informed that the funds for research were not available,” he recently wrote. “As a result, there was no study, and therefore, no way to exonerate my business and the only viable method for producing foie gras.”

Yes, there are less feasible or industrial-friendly means of producing foie gras than gavage. Local food blogger Hank Shaw wrote in 2010 of hunting “wild foie gras” waterfowl, which had overeaten during the late summer and autumn and whose livers had developed “a fat layer comparable to that seen on a domestic duck, loads of fat around their gizzards and guts.”

And Sacramento grocer and renowned foodie Darrell Corti told SN&R of a Spanish foie gras producer, Patería de Sousa, who instead of using gavage employed the nearly 5,000-year-old practice of leaving figs, acorns and beans on the ground for geese during the fall, which fattened the birds’ livers into award-winning, velvety foie gras.

Corti called the California Legislature’s ban “embarrassing,” but also noted that the industrialization of food oftentimes leads to the mistreatment of animals.

“The farmer that has 12 geese wants to get 13 livers,” he mused.

The state’s ban on force-feeding birds will also impact other industries. The North Face, for instance, uses down in its jackets that is derived from feathers from force-fed ducks. Same goes for many pillows and comforter linings, among other products.

“It’s not like when we were settling the West and shooting buffalo on trains and leaving them to rot,” said Kimio Bazett with Midtown bar-restaurant The Golden Bear, who also lobbied on behalf of CHEFS. “The whole animal is used.”

Sacramento chefs Patrick Mulvaney, Mike Thiemann, Randall Selland and many others will continue engaging the Capitol in hopes of amending or repealing the ban—even if the July 1 deadline comes and goes. The Chicago City Council, for instance, banned foie gras in 2006, but later repealed the law.

But while there are many powerbrokers in the Windy City, there’s no John Burton.

SN&R obtained a copy of Burton’s private memo to state assemblymembers; in it, he blasted chefs for wanting to continue force-feeding birds, which he likened to “the equivalent of waterboarding, which is called torture when done to a human being.”

Assembly speaker John Perez has stated there will be no bill repealing the foie gras ban this year, and nary an assemblymember has held out an olive branch to CHEFS.

“He’s a powerful man,” Bazett said of Burton. “Not a lot of people want to go against him.”

Still, the Sacramento-based CHEFS are targeting another compelling Capitol player—and likely a frequent customer: current Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

“He is probably the most influential member we need to swing,” Pechal said.

Or, as one local chef put it: “There has also been talk of blacklisting Steinberg from our restaurants!”

Fowl play, indeed.