What the Foie? A Close Look at California’s Ban on Force Feeding Ducks

A look at the people and practices behind California’s foie gras ban.

Considering the number of people who have actually eaten foie gras it’s surprising the amount of attention California’s pending ban of the sale and production of foie has generated.

Last week a group of big-name chefs made headlines by coming out against the ban. Calling themselves the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards, the chefs traveled to Sacramento to ask lawmakers not to enact the ban, offering this charter instead. The bill, SB 1520, was passed seven years ago, with a grace period until July 2012 to allow producers to explore alternatives to the controversial practice of force-feeding.

Leaving aside the fact that their coalition name conjures up images of Astroturf why would chefs such as Thomas Keller, Charles Phan, and Michael Mina advocate in favor of a feeding practice that expands ducks’ livers to 10 times their normal size, by inducing a fatty liver disease called hepatic lipidosis (basically hepatitis). Many would say, “It’s delicious,” others would say, “it’s a culinary tradition,” and still others would say, “I don’t want the government telling me what I can cook.”

The crux of the chefs’ argument is that they only source from humane suppliers and a ban would put these good producers out of business, leading to a black market. Most of these chefs source from the one foie gras producer in California, Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras.

The two other producers in the U.S. are in New York, and both use methods that chefs who serve foie would describe as humane. After a visit to one of these farms, Sarah DiGregorio concluded in The Village Voice, “The fact that some industrial farms elsewhere are making foie gras in inhumane ways doesn’t mean that all foie gras production is inhumane.”

According the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) the humane standards put forth in the charter by the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards basically seek to continue the practices that are already in place in virtually all U.S. operations, such as regular visits by animal health care professionals, USDA inspections, hand feeding, and cage-free living quarters. This chart shows side-by-side comparisons of the charter and current practices.

Regardless of feeding methods and living conditions, the question of whether or not the practice of force-feeding a duck up to three pounds of food a day is a humane practice has been the subject of much debate. Even the veterinarians can’t agree. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has considered resolutions opposing the practice on humane grounds, but has stopped short of taking a position, due to concern by food supply veterinarians that it would lead to the group having to take a position on other much more large-scale factory farming practices.

The AVMA says that empirical research regarding the health and welfare of birds during and after the feeding process is limited, but the group’s backgrounder does say: “force feeding (sic) overrides animal preference and homeostasis. Although ducks may, under some conditions, voluntarily consume large amounts of food, if force feeding (sic) is interrupted they will fast for a period of 3 days or longer, indicating that ducks have been fed past the point of satiety.”

What do chefs who aren’t a part of The Coalition have to say?

“I’ve eaten foie gras a number of times,” said Aaron French chef at the Sunny Side Cafés, in Albany and Berkeley, CA, and author of The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook. “The last time I had it I thought, ‘I don’t really need to eat this ever again,’” adding, “It’s inherently unnatural, and I don’t believe in eating any meat that’s not raised according to the animals’ natural cycles.”

In addition to being a chef, French is also an ecologist and ornithologist. He concedes that migratory water birds do have a natural tendency to store fat, but taking it to the extreme of foie gras is “kind of silly.” He tells me there are some producers producing a foie gras-like product (faux gras) without force-feeding, but says, “It’s not really the same. It’s a choice we’re making to choose this force-fed foie gras as the best. Why can’t we as a society choose the qualities of a naturally fattened liver as superior?” He likens it to the production of feedlot beef, in which the cows are fed an unnatural diet of corn, as compared to 100% grass-fed beef, in which the cows are allowed to graze naturally. As a society, we’ve decided we prefer the taste and texture of feedlot beef, but that’s starting to change.

French thinks that, rather than a ban on current practices, which he believes will create an alternate market for the current product, we should use this opportunity for education to shift our perspective away from force-feeding and toward a more benign product that doesn’t require the practice, much like we’re starting to shift our tastes to prefer grass-fed beef.

Samin Nosrat, an Oakland-based chef and writer and founder of the pioneering Pop Up General Store echoes some of French’s thoughts.

“Foie isn’t one of my go-to ingredients,” she says, “I don’t condone force-feeding ducks or geese. On the other hand, I care about food traditions, and I feel sad whenever a family business goes away,” adding, “this could be a great opportunity to look into other ways of producing it.”

Besides the farmer in Spain known as the Duck Whisperer, made famous in this TED talk by Dan Barber, there doesn’t seem to be anyone producing a product that is truly foie gras, without the use of force-feeding.

Charlie Hallowell, owner and chef of Pizzaiolo and Boot and Shoe Service in Oakland, CA, doesn’t serve a lot of foie gras. “I serve rustic Italian food,” he says, but, “I don’t get the justification for banning. It’s misplaced. It’s a cheap and easy target for animal rights activists. We should f*cking ban McDonalds!”

Adding, “it’s a teensy market.” “We should ban corn syrup and other things that are part of a large structural apparatus…There are things in the food system that have a widespread impact on our communities and the way we live our lives and foie gras isn’t one of those things.”

Hallowell adds, “I’ve been to foie gras farms and I’m most concerned about the labor practices on these farms.” He goes on to tell me that for the really high quality livers, the same worker has to feed the duck throughout its life because ducks become stressed by new people, and stress damages the liver. The workforce on foie gras farms is mostly an immigrant workforce, and it’s not uncommon for a worker to go without a day off during the entire feeding cycle of 20-30 days. This information makes me wish the chefs’ charter had taken up humane treatment of workers.

By press time, no California legislators have offered to champion the chefs’ proposed charter and the ban is still scheduled to go into effect. The city of Chicago repealed an earlier ban in 2008. Many countries prohibit force-feeding of animals, but the only country with a large foie gras industry to ban the practice has been Israel, whose Supreme Court ruled against force-feeding in 2003. When it comes to agriculture, the impact of any action in California cannot be overstated. California’s ban on battery cages for egg-laying hens led directly to United Egg Producers pledge to work with HSUS toward enacting federal legislation banning the practice. Perhaps a ban on a food of the 1% is just the first baby step toward banning some of the large-scale factory abuses that will have a much larger impact on the health of animals and our environment.

Images: Stu Spivak, VirtualErn, and Just Chaos

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.