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The Changing Foie Gras Scene in San Diego

California’s foie gras ban is the best thing to happen to chickens (and foie gras)


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foie gras

Seared foie gras with apple glaze

I love foie gras. And I love California for banning it.

Starting July 1, “producing or selling” foie gras—the fatty liver of a duck or goose—becomes illegal in California. Animal rights activists will throw parties. But the real winners? Foie gras fans. And chickens.

Yeah, chickens.

Ducks and geese* should be nervous. Californians have never been so fascinated with their chubby organs. One surefire way to stoke Americans’ desire for something? Tell them they can’t have it.

On one hand, law SB 1520 is encouraging. It proves Californians give a damn about the treatment of food animals. It’s also sad, because it shows how easily that empathy can be exploited by special interests like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

Like a religion, PETA was created with pure intent. Like a cult, PETA has devolved into an extremist faction of fearmongers. They’re also kind of kooky (they recently campaigned to have fish renamed “sea kittens”).

To enforce their food rules on California, PETA filmed worst-case scenarios at a couple of foie farms, got Kate Winslet to narrate, and cast every American foie farmer as a torturer of cute ducks. The truth is that some “farmers” are abusive jerks, and should be exfoliated from the industry. But finding a bad apple or a single worker’s lapse in judgment doesn’t mean you tear down the tree. Employees don’t always live up to standards, as pretty much every American employer can attest.

The main beef with foie is gavage, the process of force-feeding ducks. It fattens their liver, creating a delicacy fit for minor gods. At ethical farms, the ducks roam free-range until two weeks before slaughter. They’re then moved to a large cage where, twice a day, a feeding tube full of corn is inserted down their throats.

Force-feeding?! Tube-throating?!

Yes. It’s a simulation of what wild ducks do every winter. They “force-feed” themselves whole fish—intentionally fattening their liver so it can fuel their long flight south. Evolution designed ducks for this. They have no gag reflex. Their larynx is extraordinarily expandable and lined with a thick cuticle that prevents injury when swallowing food whole.

Official studies are split. Two by the American Veterinary Medical Association found no problem with gavage; the EU’s Committee on Animal Health did (though it admitted no “conclusive” evidence).

Why do I love the ban? Food tastes better slathered in taboo, with underground supper clubs and code words.

I won’t pretend these ducks are massaged daily until they die of acute pleasure. The food chain is not a love story. But foie gras isn’t the horror fabricated by PETA. Surely Walt Disney deserves credit for the ban, as well—he turned our food animals into super-cute movie stars (“Mom! Donald’s in trouble!”). As does general food ignorance (“Honey, what’s gavage? Oh, here’s a video with Kate Winslet. Love her!”).

But none of this matters, because SB 1520 will fail. The law only prohibits restaurants from “selling” foie gras. During Chicago’s short-lived ban, chefs simply gave it away with a $40 salad. In a state that can’t pay its teachers, using tax dollars to hunt foie dealers borders on gross negligence. They’ll slap a few offenders for P.R. purposes, then get back to real issues (health care, water supply, balancing budgets, etc.).

So why do I love the ban? First, food tastes better slathered in taboo, with underground supper clubs and code words. Second, it’ll be a boom for the talented, ethical chefs in Tijuana and Baja (“Ba-Foie” dinners!). Third, and most importantly, this media blitz will help those poor chickens.

Unlike foie gras, factory-farmed chicken is a true American disgrace—a brutal evil affecting 6 billion animals a year (compared to 500,000 ducks for foie). In debating the foie ban, very famous chefs all said the same thing: “Do Californians have any idea what seven levels of hell their chicken goes through before it becomes dinner?”

Chicken is the real elephant in the room. SB 1520 ignores it and shoots the mouse. But at least it’s inspired some very famous people (who deeply loved that little mouse) to start screaming about the elephant.

*Foie gras includes both ducks and geese. To make this readable, we will heretofore just mention ducks.

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