California’s Foie Gras Food Fight
Saturday, June 16, 2012
It’s lunch time on a Thursday and San Diegans wait in long lines at Carnitas Snack Shack in North Park, under a wooden pig standing vigil on the restaurant’s roof.
Thursday is special. That’s the day chef Hanis Cavin serves foie gras.
The burly chef jostles for space in the small kitchen. He points to a plate of sliced foie gras, waiting to be tossed onto the grill. “There it is in all its glory. Brings a tear to the eye, doesn’t it?”
Cavin’s 6-month-old restaurant specializes in pork. It’s named after his miniature pet pig and YouTube star, Carnitas.
Cavin’s love of pork is almost primal. He has a tattoo of a pig on his inside forearm. It includes an accurate diagram showing the different cuts of meat.
But Cavin also loves foie gras. He serves it once a week and prepares it differently each time. Mostly he sears it, making the outside crunchy. On this day, he’s made it into a gravy and poured it over short ribs and French fries. “I want people to enjoy it. If they’re taking a risk to order it, I want them to go, ‘Wow, this tastes good,’ and hopefully open their palate.”
Foie gras is a delicacy, and it’s expensive, though not at Carnitas Snack Shack. “That’s what’s kind of ridiculous,” Cavin chuckles. “We sell it for $8 and it normally runs $18-25 on most menus.” On that Thursday, it sold out in two hours.
On July 1st, the sale and production of foie gras will be illegal in California, the first state to enact such a ban in the nation. Authors of Senate Bill 1520 say the way foie gras is made amounts to animal cruelty.
Banning foie gras might not mean much to your average consumer, who rarely eats such pricey fare. But the debate reminds us of something we all deny on a regular basis: We don’t like to think about where our food comes from because more often than not, where it comes from isn’t pretty.
Maverick TV host and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain says foie gras is one of the 10 most interesting flavors in the world. Chef Hanis Cavin says that for some people, eating foie gras is a religious experience.
But one man's heaven can be another man's version of hell.
Bryan Pease awoke to animal rights at age 16 when he refused to dissect in biology class. He would eventually found the San Diego-based Animal Protection and Rescue League, a group that's been busy protesting restaurants that serve foie gras.
He took up the fight against foie gras in 2002, when there was little attention being paid to the French delicacy or how it’s produced. In fact, it would have been tough to find foie gras on a menu in the United States before the early 1980s.
By many standards, it’s still a small industry. There are roughly 500,000 ducks slaughtered in the U.S. every year to make foie gras. That many chickens are put to slaughter daily in this country...on just one farm.
Pease started what he calls the foie gras investigations. There are two main foie gras farms in the country, Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras in Stockton, California and Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York (there are a total of three farms in the U.S.).
Pease went to both and brought a video camera.
“I’ve just walked into these farms. I’ve done it at night when managers aren’t around to tell me to leave,” Pease said. “I’ve gone up to the workers and videotaped them force-feeding.”
The California state ban will prohibit the force feeding of ducks to enlarge their livers. As of now, this is the only way foie gras can be made.
Here’s how the harvesting of foie gras works. Ducks (it's primarily ducks in the U.S.) roam on a farm for roughly 12 weeks. The ducks’ livers are fattened during the last two-three weeks of life. Ducks are moved to specific barns and kept in 4 by 6 foot pens. They are fed two to three times a day, when a foot-long metal tube is inserted down each duck's gullet, injecting corn mash. The goal is to fatten the liver six to 10 times its normal size.
This, says Pease, is so cruel it amounts to torture.
“I’ve seen ducks having difficulty standing, walking and breathing. I’ve seen ducks on the verge of death from force feeding. I’ve seen trash barrels full of dead ducks that didn’t survive the feeding process,” he said.
Reports on conditions at the two main farms vary from activist to chef to journalist. Some chefs who visited the farms did not find the conditions troubling; some even called them ideal. Mark Caro, a journalist from the Chicago Tribune who observed farm operations in preparation for his book, “The Foie Gras Wars,” says he did not see the ducks “respond positively or negatively” to the force feeding.
Just as variable are the studies on whether force feeding is harmful to ducks.
Ducks don’t have a gag reflex. They often eat fish whole. As a result, some argue inserting a metal tube down their gullets does not cause injury. Fifteen countries have banned foie gras production. The Humane Society says it’s harmful; the American Veterinary Medical Association says, under the right conditions, it isn’t.
The California ban was actually passed in 2004. Seven and a half years were given to the sole foie gras producer in the state, Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras, to research alternative methods for producing a fattened duck liver.
Guillermo Gonzalez opened Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras 26 years ago after fleeing El Salvador. His family-owned business will close its doors at the end of June because of the ban.
Gonzalez said via email that seven and a half years ago, he was promised state funding to research alternative harvesting methods. That funding never materialized. "The most unfortunate fact is that science has not been give a chance to play a role in this debate, despite the promise of it from our political leadership. The larger impact, however, is that a powerful special interest group with an anti-meat mandate was able to impose its agenda on all of us through violent means and propaganda."
Gonzalez says his farm has always respected "the noble duck" and has worked with state agencies and the University of California at Davis to ensure the highest standards in farming.
Bertrand Hug owns two of the toniest restaurants in San Diego, Mille Fleurs and Bertrand at Mr. A’s. Standing on the balcony of the latter, which boasts one of the best views in San Diego, Bertrand talks of growing up on a small family foie gras farm in Southwestern France.
He gestures emphatically, and says he watched his grandmother handle the ducks. “I was there! With my grandma and my dad during the force feeding process. I saw this a lot. And I never saw one of those sick animals in all those disgusting pictures they’ve been passing around.”
In the bustling kitchen at Mr. A's, Bertrand has his chef, Stephane Voitzwinkler, bring out a loaf of foie gras, which generally runs $40 a pound. It’s from Hudson Valley, the New York farm, and the words “cage free” are on the label.
It’s just one duck’s liver and it’s the size of a brick.
Leading up to the ban, sales of foie gras have skyrocketed in California. Chef Voitzwinkler says his supplier reported they’ve sold more foie gras in the last three weeks than they’ve sold all year.
Angelica Pappas of the California Restaurant Association says there are normally 350 restaurants in California that serve foie gras. "However, in the past few months it's probably doubled in this build up to the ban. We've seen more mid-range restaurants offering things like foie gras grilled cheese or foie gras milkshakes."
Once the ban goes into effect, San Diego chef Daniel Barron says chefs will just go to places like Vegas to get it. “There are already organizations or groups of people that are planning to make foie gras runs for those of us who need it in our lives.”
Bertrand says it will become an underground business. “It will become extremely expensive.” He adds with excitement: “Like drugs!”
After July 1, the fine for selling or producing foie gras in California will be $1,000. Enforcement will likely be driven by complaints. The Humane Society will be in charge of enforcing the ban in San Diego (the San Diego chapter did not return calls for comment).
Bryan Pease says he's ready. “We’re going to be monitoring, we’re going to be checking up. We know who’s serving it still and we’re going to make sure they’re not serving it any longer.”
The city of Chicago banned foie gras from 2006 to 2008. During that time, some chefs circumvented the ban by giving it away for free, alongside, say a glass of wine that was suddenly $40 to cover the side of foie.
San Diegan Martin Lindsay is a self-described foodie. He sits in front of a plate of French fries smothered in foie gras gravy. “It’s like what’s going to be next. We don’t like broccoli so no one else can have it either? We don’t like the way you grow it? Or for that matter, chicken or veal. What’s going to be next?”
Bryan Pease knows what's next for him. He plans to step up the fight and eradicate foie gras from all U.S. menus, not just those in California. “We focus on campaigns that we can win, that are winnable. And we’ve won it. We’ve won in California.”
Video by Nicholas McVicker