Vive la Foie Gras Résistance!

Dec. 10, 2012

By John Hrabe

In 2004, then-state Senate President Pro-Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, coined a profane, albeit effective, slogan that helped convince Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign into law the nation’s first ban on foie gras. A favorite target of animal rights groups worldwide, the French delicacy is created by force-feeding ducks for their specially-fattened livers.

After an eight-year implementation process, the Burton bill finally took effect last July, and with it, spawned a budding resistance movement. From French socialist politicians to an online retailer in Reno and restaurants in Hermosa Beach and Paris, the Foie Gras Résistance is fighting back against California’s draconian law.

Despite the law, gourmet shops, online retailers and restaurants have found creative ways to satisfy epicureans’ desires.  On Dec. 8, one foie gras retailer hosted a “Foie Gras Tasting and Holiday Sales Event” in Reno, Nev.  “Mirepoix USA, formerly located in the San Francisco bay area in California, relocated to Reno, Nev. last October in anticipation of the foie gras ban,” the company explained in a press release for the event.


Restaurants, too, have circumvented the law by offering the item as a complimentary side dish. The infamous animal rights group PETA is hoping to put an end to this tactic. In late November, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a lawsuit against Hot’s Kitchen for selling a burger that is served “with a complimentary side of foie gras.”

“No restaurant can act outside the law by illegally selling the diseased livers of abused birds, and PETA will help make sure that this one doesn’t,” said PETA general counsel Jeff Kerr. “Serving a ‘complimentary side of foie gras’ is as cruel as it is unlawful.”

Some critics of the law say its vagueness has made it impossible to bring forward a single enforcement action.

“It’s so vague as to be unenforceable in any manner that comports with constitutional requirements of due process,” wrote Reason magazine’s Baylen Linnekin, who serves as the executive director of the nonprofit Keep Food Legal. “After all, why hasn’t some governmental unit brought even one enforcement action in the state?”

PETA filed the lawsuit after unsuccessfully trying to persuade the Hermosa Beach Police Department to bust the criminal operation masquerading as a restaurant.

“We contacted the Hermosa Beach Police Department, but with a lot on their plates, they haven’t gotten around to the case,” PETA’s Michelle Kretzer wrote on the group’s blog.

If the thought of the police crashing dinner service at a swanky restaurant sounds absurd, you’ll love PETA’s first cause of action for the lawsuit: unfair business competition. Ironically, the California law that drove some businesses to leave the state is buttressed by regulations against unfair business competition. PETA alleges that the free side dish of foie gras unfairly gives an edge to some businesses.

A spokeswoman for the restaurant called the lawsuit an “outrageous” publicity stunt.

“Publicity stunts such as the filing of an outrageous, baseless lawsuit, followed by the issuance of press releases are nothing more than an attempt to exploit the media by stoking controversial flames and are designed to line the pockets of profiteers,” Kelley Coughlan, a representative for Hot’s Kitchen, told Reuters. 

French Socialists Fight the Ban

While California restaurateurs have been crafty in their evasive maneuvers, the most passionate members of the foie gras resistance movement have been socialist politicians in France. It’s not hyperbole to say that the California Democratic Party is more liberal than the Socialist Party of France.

This summer, Socialist president Francois Hollande offered  to “bring as much [foie gras] as needed to authorities of the country [the United States]” to help convince Sacramento that the ban was absurd.

“I think they will listen,” said Hollande, who has proposed a 75 percent tax rate on incomes exceeding 1 million euros. “We wish we could have more of it here in France, and sometimes cannot, due to lack of purchasing power — I wouldn’t want to deprive the Americans!”

No one wants the carbon footprint of a transatlantic flight weighing on a French socialist’s conscience, which is why I traveled to Paris to get the French reaction to California’s ban and taste the French delicacy for myself.

Enjoying Foie Gras in Paris

I sat down with the manager of one of Paris’ most popular foie gras proprietors. In her mellifluous French accent, Lucie Loï, director of the highly-rated Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie, summed up the reaction of the French food community.

“You cannot touch it. You cannot ban it. It would be crazy,” she told me as I washed down a plate of foie gras with a glass of champagne.  Foie gras is considered an important “part of the cultural and gastronomic heritage protected in France.”

I asked Loï about animal rights groups’ characterization that the delicacy is produced on factory farms.

“Foie gras is the product of extreme animal cruelty,” the Humane Society of the United States claims on its website. “Factory farms produce it by force feeding ducks so much that their livers become diseased and enlarged. This causes a tremendous amount of suffering and can make it difficult for the birds to walk and breathe normally.”

Loï vehemently objected. Her business only purchases foie gras from a farm cooperative in rural France.

The French resistance has even spawned a boycott of California wine.

“I call on all the restaurants in France that sell Californian wine to stop doing so in a show of solidarity for our foie gras makers and, more broadly, for all food makers,” urged Philippe Martin, the Socialist president of the general council of Gers, which produces 16,000 tons of foie gras each year.

For those looking to join la Résistance, Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie has international shipping and wide-variety of foie gras products to choose from.

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