The following article was first published in The Independent newspaper (UK), Oct. 1, 2004, and is reproduced with permission.
An ending made in Hollywood for an epic fight over foie gras
The headlines proclaim that Arnold Schwarzenegger has saved the geese of California from cruelty. But is the ancient delicacy really off the menu?
The foie gras wars have come to California, where nothing - not the gastronomic indulgence, not the animal-rights activism, not even the well-meaning campaigning by Hollywood movie stars - is quite as it seems.
Yesterday, the newspaper headlines appeared to announce a resounding triumph for the worldwide campaign against gavage - the practice of force-feeding ducks and geese for the sole purpose of engorging their livers and delighting the palates of well-heeled diners in upscale French restaurants. California's superstar governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the papers announced, had banned the production and even the sale of foie gras in the Golden State because it entailed unwarranted cruelty to farm animals.
At first blush, it appeared that the Terminator had handed a clear victory to the animalrights lobby and their many vocal supporters in the entertainment business - among them Sir Paul McCartney, Chrissie Hynde, Kim Basinger, Martin Sheen and a host of lesser stars who had showered Mr Schwarzenegger with letters and petitions.
French farmers, hearing the news on the radio and television, certainly thought so. "Let the Americans eat their hamburgers, and in France we'll eat our foie gras," said an incensed Alain Labarthe, president of the main industry association for foie gras producers. But then the owners of California's only foie gras-producing duck farm came out with a statement reacting to the new legislation signed into law on Wednesday night, and the issue took on a whole new complexion. "We supported this bill and thank the governor and the legislature for their very serious consideration and deliberation," wrote Guillermo Gonzalez, the owner and operator of Sonoma Foie Gras.
Mr Gonzalez, an immigrant from El Salvador who has been producing foie gras for top restaurants in the San Francisco area since the mid-1980s, said he was "excited" to work with Mr Schwarzenegger's administration on working through the controversies and added: "We will go on with our business." Looking at the fine print of the bill, it was easy to see why Mr Gonzalez was pleased. The ban on force-feeding will not take effect until 2012, giving him almost eight years to negotiate with the state about practices on his free-range duck farm in California's dusty Central Valley. Even after that deadline, foie gras will continue to be sold in California and will be banned only if it can be shown to have been produced through cruel methods within the state itself. Until 2012, meanwhile, Sonoma Foie Gras will be immune from all lawsuits - two of which had been pending before the courts but will now be dropped.
"For them [Mr Gonzalez and his wife], this was the best thing that could happen," said Francine Bradley, a poultry expert at the University of California in Davis who has worked with the couple since they began their business and has nothing but praise for their animal husbandry practices.
Mr Schwarzenegger may not be known for his bleeding-heart attachment to the welfare of farm animals, but he does have a reputation as a canny political operator. And here, in the land of political correctness, gastronomic paranoia and endless celebrity causes, was a brilliant compromise that managed to make him look good in the eyes of just about everyone - as long as they won't paying very close attention.
Sir Paul McCartney had put himself front and centre urging Governor Schwarzenegger to sign California Senate Bill number 1520. "I feel sure your natural feelings of compassion will encourage you to sign this basic human bill into law," he wrote in a letter on behalf of the animal rights group Viva!USA. A clutch of other interest groups, including the Association of Veterinarians for Animals Rights, Farm Sanctuary and Los Angeles Lawyers for Animals, had urged exactly the same thing.
Only a sprinkling of more extreme animal-rights groups have objected to the bill, saying it actually achieves the opposite of what it purports to be enacting. It remains to be seen, however, whether they can stir up enough outrage to revive the notoriously short attention spans of the Hollywood glitterati.
Foie gras has acquired an increasingly dirty reputation in recent years. Denmark, Germany, Poland and Italy have all issued bans on the practice of gavage, which was pioneered in ancient Egypt and perfected in France in the 18th century. Several other countries, as well as the European Union, have either considered legislation banning it or insisted on tighter regulations to minimise animal cruelty and disease during the stuffing period.
In the United States, the debate only sprang into life recently. Both the Gonzalez farm in California and a second, similar business in New York's Hudson River Valley have received extremely high marks for their small-scale operations, which are a far cry from the industrial production lines in some parts of France where birds are pinned down in machines or cages and the feed is rammed into them pneumatically in a couple of seconds.
At Sonoma Foie Gras, the birds roam free in the open air for all but the last two weeks of their lives, at which point they are moved into an air-conditioned barn for the intensive feeding phase. Several scientists, including Dr Bradley, have given their approval to the Gonzalez methods and say there is no evidence the Moulard ducks suffer any distress.
An article in the journal British Poultry Science in 2001 which examined traditional foie gras production similar to that practised in California found "no significant indication that force-feeding is perceived as an acute or chronic stress by male mule ducks". The Gonzalez farm also complies with all three recommendations issued a few years ago by the European Union's Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Welfare, which said animals should not be kept in small cages, fed in such a way as to cause discomfort, or stuffed to the point where they fall ill or die from liver disease.
Dr Bradley ascribes the high emotions of the foie-gras opponents to a Walt-Disney view of the animal world that does not take into account, for example, the fact that duck throats are a lot more flexible than human ones. "It's interesting that the people who promoted this legislation have never demonstrated any scientific evidence that harm is being done," she said. "Their spokespeople are Hollywood movie stars with no connection to agriculture ... they've been carried along by an emotional frenzy." That frenzy has been particularly noticeable among the more extreme animal-rights groups, who last summer launched a campaign of intimidation and vandalism against Mr Gonzalez's partners in the restaurant business.
Laurent Manrique, a top-flight San Francisco chef famous for his foie-gras appetiser trolley, had his house spray-painted, his car splashed with acid and his garage door sealed shut with glue. His partner, Didier Jaubert, was also targeted with slogans such as "foie gras is animal torture" and "stop or be stopped" daubed on his front door, windows and garage doors. The gourmet shop and restaurant they were about to open, Sonoma Saveurs, was also vandalised; wreckers poured cement in the sinks, spray-painted the walls and turned on all the taps, flooding two neighbouring businesses as well as their own premises.
A few weeks later, animal activists broke into the duck farm, too, later boasting that they had "liberated" 15 ducks, "taught them to eat on their own, and even gave them workouts on a water treadmill". At least one newspaper columnist, Debra Saunders of the San Francisco Chronicle, alerted her readers to the madness unfolding. "Think," she wrote. "They're proud they terrorise families and destroy small businesses so that ducks can work out." But Ms Saunders and the San Francisco foodies soon found themselves in a minority. The Senate majority leader, a savvy San Francisco lawman called John Burton, chose to promote the legislation banning gavage, and appeared indifferent to the fact that he could be seen to be condoning or rewarding acts of violence. "Cramming food down a duck's throat to make a gourmet item known as foie gras is not only unnecessary," he said, "it's inhumane." In its original form, the Senate bill would have put Mr Gonzalez right out of business and effectively put foie gras in the same category as whiskey in Prohibition-era Chicago. It was Mr Schwarzenegger's staff who queried whether it was fair to target one business owner so abruptly and worked to introduce the time lag, the immunity from lawsuits and the other more lenient provisions.
"The bill's intent is to ban the current foie gras production of forcing a tube down a bird's throat to greatly increase the consumption of grain by the bird," Mr Schwarzenegger said in a statement. "It does not ban the food product, foie gras. The bill provides seven and one-half years for agricultural husbandry practices to evolve and perfect a humane way for a duck to consume grain to increase the size of its liver through natural processes."
So will the California furore will have an inevitable knock-on effect on the growing debate over foie gras in France. An anti-foie gras movement has been building there for some time, and its exponents were quick to reiterate their point of view last night in reaction to events half a world away. "Studies show that foie gras is the sick liver of a sick bird," said Sébastien Arsac, leader of a French pressure group for the protection of farm animals (Protection Mondiale des Animaux de Ferme). "The death rate among ducks increases 10 to 20- fold during the period of gavage."
Brigitte Bardot, who has helped to make the cause of animal rights respectable in France, said: "Gavage is a veritable form of torture for ducks and geese, which have to absorb huge quantities of food in a matter of seconds." French foie-gras producers, meanwhile, say they have already taken steps over the years to make the practice more humane. They no longer nail the feet of the geese to the barn floor, and the fattening process now lasts for two weeks, instead of three.
French producers are, however, fighting a rearguard action against voluntary guidelines laid down by the Council of Europe in 1999 and accepted by many countries, including France, in 1999. Under the agreement, the ducks and geese are supposed to have enough space to stand up and stretch their wings from 1 January next year. The foie-gras lobby says this increases costs by 30 per cent. The French government has recently agreed that larger cages need not be introduced for another five years.
While accepting the space argument with a very poor grace, the foie-gras farmers refuse to accept that the practice of gavage is in itself cruel or inhumane. Gabriel Bonnin, chief exceutive of Rougié Bizac International, the world's largest foie-gras manufacturer, based at Salart in the Dordogne, prefers not to speak of gavage or stuffing but of "finition d'engraissement" or "completing the fattening process".
"On migration, geese and duck have the capacity to store fat for long journeys... I'm not convinced that they suffer (from force-feeding). Even scientists can't be sure of that. All we do is to increase the amount of food that the geese and ducks are willing to absorb." The more militant producers say the campaign against foie gras is the work of an "international, vegetarian movement", which they accuse of infiltrating the corridors of the European Commission in Brussels.
Marcel Saint-Cricq, a producer in the Landes, south of Bordeaux, said: "They say they are not against foie gras but against gavage and that we should look for alternative methods of production. What methods? There are none. Why don't they also ban butterfly collecting?"