Let Them Eat Cake Liver: The California ban on foie gras

In 2004, the California legislature passed a bill, SB 1520,  making California the first state to ban the force-feeding of birds.  Force-feeding is a process wherein a bird, usually a duck or goose, is forced to consume more food for the purpose of enlarging its liver.  This enlarged liver becomes foie gras, a rather expensive delicacy.  The bill not only bans the act of force feeding for the purpose of enlarging the liver, the bill also bans the selling of foie gras produced by force-feeding means.  The ban went into effect on July 1, 2012.  This delayed effective date was intended to allow the industry time to develop alternative  means to create foie gras without force-feeding methods, but an alternative means proved nonexistent and the weeks leading up to the ban brought scores of Californians to the handful of restaurants with foie gras on their menus.  Sales of foie gras soared in the month of June as California residents stuffed themselves with the delicacy while it remained legal.  Now, with the ban in full effect, people are finding ways to sidestep the prohibition.  But what is the big deal?  Does the force-feeding method really amount to animal cruelty?

A large number of animal rights groups (including but not limited to the Humane Society of the United States, Farm Sanctuary, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Animal Protection and Rescue League, Mercy for Animals, and Animal Legal Defense Fund) believe force-feeding is animal cruelty.  As does then-Senator John Burton, who backed SB 1520 in 2004 and continued working to ensure special interests groups did not gut the bill prior to its effective date.  The United Kingdom, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Israel, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Argentina each either have clear and unambiguous bans on force-feeding or have viewed the process as falling under existing animal cruelty laws.  If so many groups and countries think force-feeding is cruel and inhumane, why the continued controversy in California and across the United States?

The answer is not simple; debate exists over whether force-feeding constitutes cruelty. There is concern for the small farmer who makes his livelihood on foie gras, and concern for the restaurants and chefs who wish to retain their freedom in creating their menus, and certainly not to be ignored is the ultimate agenda of the groups supporting the ban.  It seems almost silly that a goose liver is causing so much trouble, but the issue is not simply a goose liver – and the harmful effects are far from silly.

In 2004, the National Animal Interest Alliance Trust (NAIA Trust) actively fought against the bill in arguing passage of the bill “would validate the use of criminal tactics to achieve social goals and encourage activist groups to escalate the use of violence, theft, threats, intimidation, and vandalism in their war against livestock agriculture and other animal interests.” As a nonprofit organization established to promote responsible animal care and ownership, and reasonable laws, policies, and regulations to protect animals and the people who care for them, the NAIA Trust further argued, “Animal agriculture should be governed by science and animal welfare concerns, not by radical agendas proffered by those who would end animal ownership and abolish the use of animal products.”   This sentiment continues to resound with California residents, as many resident consider this bill a first step in destroying the poultry industry entirely.

On the issue of cruelty, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) defeated two resolutions to oppose force-feeding.  The American Association of Avian Veterinarians, the American Association of Avian Pathologists, and the New York State Veterinary Medical Association opposed the resolutions as well.  According to AVMA, force-feeding in the United States does not constitute animal cruelty as portrayed by activist groups.  While some groups disagree with AVMA, the question of cruelty has not been affirmatively answered through empirical studies and scientific data.  Simply disliking a practice does not make such a process cruel and inhumane.

Turning focus to the small farmers shows serious negative effects of the ban.  Sonoma Foie Gras Farm, a family business in California, will be forced to close its doors at the end June.    The ban has taken away the livelihood of owner Guillermo Gonzalez, marking the end of a highly successful business.  Gonzalez started Sonoma Foie Gras after coming to the United States from El Salvador to pursue the American dream.  Despite past praise for his methods in force-feeding, Gonzalez’s dream is dead.  Or is it?

On the first business day after the ban took effect, New York-based Hudson Valley Foie Gras, Canadian non-profit Association des Eleveurs de Canards et d’Oies due Quebéc, and  Hot’s Restaurant Group, Inc. of California filed a complaint seeking “to declare invalid and enjoin enforcement” of the ban “for violation of the fifth and fourteenth amendments and the commerce clause.”  The complaint further alleges that the ban is unconstitutionally vague.  In addition to the pending lawsuit, chefs and restaurants are challenging the ban by continuing to offer foie gras.  According to California’s Orange County Register, Antoine Price not only offered foie gras dishes at his San Clemente restaurant one day after the ban’s effective date, but also titled the menu “Foie You!”

Antoine Price is not alone.  Chefs and restaurants across the United States wish to retain their right to serve foie gras, and they do not take kindly to being told what they can and cannot place on their menus.  If a chef does not want to serve foie gras, he does not have to.  If a restaurant does not want to offer the fatty delicacy, the restuarant does not have to.  But the freedom to decide to serve foie gras should be left to the chefs and restaurants rather than the legislature.  It is their right, chefs and restuarants argue, to serve foie gras and those who choose to serve it are not blind to the methods of the delicacy’s creation .  Stephen Ribustello, co-owner and chef of On the Square restaurant in Tarboro, North Carolina, commented, “As a chef and restauranteur, my wife and I are committed to sourcing out great products that are raised, caught or grown in an intelligent and humane manner.  We do our best to research the origin of everything we bring into our business, sometimes making poor financial decisions due to ethical concerns (like spending three times as much on local eggs, even when there is no discernible difference in taste after baking a cake).  We are conscious of everything from how our fish is caught to how grapes are grown for the wines we stock in our cellar.  And on the rare occasions when we serve foie gras, we are very aware of where it comes from.”

California certainly has an interest in animal welfare within the state, but this ban is the product of simply disagreeing with a process.   While force-feeding is not a natural process, it is not inhumane and the negative effects of the ban are far too great to support the bill.  Although the bill passed several years ago, the bad taste it leaves in one’s mouth is now being realized.  Ribustello said it best:  “This bill in California is a joke, and makes me want to serve foie gras more often.  In fact, I think I’ll run a foie gras special tonight.”  Maybe I should take a small road trip to On the Square and taste what all the fuss is about.


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About Tommi E. Powell, Former Senior Staff Writer (8 Articles)
Tommi graduated from Campbell Law School in 2013 and received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2004 and a Master of Arts in English with a multicultural concentration from East Carolina University in 2006. Prior to attending law school, Tommi worked for the American Kennel Club, where an interest in animal law developed. She worked as an extern for the Water and Land Section of the Environmental Division of the North Carolina Department of Justice.
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