Foie Gras and Its Foes

In France, foie gras is the star turn of the festive dinner table, but in California it has been banned since January and it will be banned in New York City in 2020. Influential restaurant owners, supermarket chains, movie stars, animal protection organizations – and even a pope – have blacklisted the delicacy. But French producers won’t give up.
© D’Artagnan

A wave of panic is spreading among foie gras producers across North America. California has outlawed production and sale of the product, and the City of New York passed a law making the sale of foie gras illegal, which will come into effect in 3 years. The councilwoman who sponsored the law, Carlina Rivera, argues that foie gras is an elitist and useless product derived from a cruel process. “Foie gras is not part of the diet of everyday New Yorkers,” says Rivera. “Less than 1% of all New York City restaurants serve it.”

Foie gras has fallen victim to a witch hunt, complains Ariane Daguin, the French founder of the brand D’Artagnan, which distributes duck-liver foie gras produced in the states of New York and New Jersey. “Aside from a handful of chefs and gastronomes, most Americans have never eaten it,” she points out. The U.S. market is modest. Annual consumption amounts to less than 300 metric tons, a drop in the ocean compared with the 16,000 tons consumed each year in France, where 90% of the population say that they eat it at least once a year.

Some Americans are shocked by the practice of gavage, or force-feeding. In Ancient Egypt, birds along the Nile Delta would gorge themselves in preparation for the winter migration. Today, however, ducks and geese are force-fed. Through a funnel, they ingurgitate a mixture of water and corn two to three times a day for a period of two to three weeks. As a result, their livers can weigh up to 1.5 pound. The process is painless, according to farmers, but cruel in the opinion of animal rights activists. The actress Loretta Swit, best known for her role in M*A*S*H, even compared the force-feeding of ducks to the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Six Million Anti-Foie Gras Militants

The poultry defense movement has gathered momentum as a result of YouTube, explains Dan Mathews, Senior Vice President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which has been campaigning against foie gras since the 1980s. “People watched footage [of force-feeding] and changed their mind about foie gras […]. Any idiot can see it’s cruelty and that it’s not natural.”

That message has been passed on by PETA activists worldwide and has received support from celebrities such as Roger Moore, Kate Winslet, Pamela Anderson, and Pope Benedict XVI. American supermarkets Target and Giant Eagle have stopped selling foie gras, and Whole Foods has added it to the Unacceptable Ingredient List, along with artificial colors and lead-soldered cans. At the same time, the American market has shrunk as a result of higher import duties and new health and safety requirements: In 1999, France exported 800 tons of foie gras to the U.S., compared with zero today. The market is currently shared among a few North American producers: two in New York State, one in Minnesota, and four in Quebec.

Animal welfare champions chalked up a major victory in California. On January 7 this year, any product derived from the force-feeding of “birds” became illegal in the Golden State. An appeal lodged by producers and restaurant owners was turned down by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the law – originally passed in 2004 – has come into force. Offenders face a fine of up to 1,000 dollars. In France, where foie gras has been officially recognized since 2006 as part of the country’s “cultural and gastronomic heritage,” the union representing producers has spoken out against “lobbying by a handful of activists” and “misinformation” organized in the name of vegetarianism. In North America, duck farmers feel persecuted, saying that they receive threatening letters and that “vegetarian terrorists” are infiltrating their farms.

A Sitting Duck

“Foie gras is an easy target,” says Benoît Cuchet, General Manager of Rougié, which produces foie gras in the Montreal area and exports 45% of its output to the United States. “Our industry is small and lacks the resources and support enjoyed by poultry or pig famers.” Cuchet’s view is shared by American journalist Mark Caro, author of The Foie Gras Wars. After a Chicago-based chef decided to stop serving foie gras, Caro toured farms in Southwest France, Alsace, and the United States to investigate. “I found that the treatment of ducks was more humane and more transparent than at any other large-scale poultry farm,” he said.

We will not deliver a verdict on whether foie gras production is cruel. What we can say, though, is that it has less of an impact than the production of chicken nuggets. Some half a million ducks are killed each year in the United States for foie gras, compared with nine billion chickens. That’s a ratio of one duck to 18,000 chickens. “It’s easier to attack foie gras, which isn’t as popular in the United States as it is in France,” acknowledges PETA’s vice-president.

Another drawback for foie gras is its image in the U.S. For many Americans, the delicacy epitomizes French gastronomy because it is considered exotic, elitist, and expensive, with a one-and-a-half pound terrine costing 120 dollars. In Chicago, said Caro, the 2006–2008 foie gras ban was part and parcel of the French-bashing movement that produced “freedom fries.”

An Uncertain War

Foie gras is now under threat in New York. The ban will come into effect on October 30, 2022, and violators will risk a fine between 500 and 2,000 dollars. In the past, Philadelphia and the states of Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington all tried to prohibit foie gras, but failed to get legislation enacted. Animal protection organizations did not garner the same support as in California, and they ran up against producers, restaurant owners, and consumers. “We are sufficiently organized to defend ourselves,” says Rougié’s Benoît Cuchet. The attorney representing producers in Quebec and New York State recently sought an injunction that could suspend enforcement of the California legislation, at least temporarily.

Ariane Daguin is not giving up. “New York City council members are at the mercy of terrorist activists,” she says. “What they just voted is unconstitutional, we will fight and overturn the ban. This is an attack against a symbol of the French art de vivre.”