California foie gras battle taps into larger food ethics debate

The attorney general in California announced Wednesday plans to appeal a federal court decision overturning a two-year-old ban on the sale of foie gras. The debate comes amid a broader movement around the ethics of food production.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File
Josiah Slone (r.) prepares a foie gras dish at Sent Sovi restaurant in Saratoga, Calif., May 11, 2012. The attorney general's office filed an appeal Wednesday, of a ruling that blocked the state ban on selling fatty goose or duck liver produced out of state. It remains illegal for California farmers to force-feed birds, which is how the delicacy is produced.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris just opened a new chapter in the ongoing slow-motion battle over the future of foie gras in the Golden State.

On Wednesday, she announced her intention to appeal a January federal court decision that overturned a two-year-old ban on the sale of the fatty liver product that comes from ducks and geese. This ban, which went into effect in 2012, was actually passed by the legislature and signed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger back in 2004.

The ban was overturned on jurisdictional grounds over the question of whether the state or the federal government has the authority to regulate poultry. In his Jan. 7 ruling, United States District Judge Stephen Wilson noted, "California cannot regulate foie gras products’ ingredients by creatively phrasing its law in terms of the manner in which those ingredients were produced."

The issue at hand may seem small – there are only two foie gras producers in the United States. But the foie gras debate comes amid a broader movement around the ethics of food production, and bumps up against the ongoing conversation over how much pull state and federal governments should have over industry.

While the legal wrangling may be confusing, the arguments on both sides of the delicacy are clearly drawn – even if the resolution is not. 

Opponents of the force-feeding that is required to fatten the birds’ livers say the treatment is "inherently cruel and inhumane" and should be universally banned in a civilized society.

Farmers, on the other hand, point out that these birds naturally fatten their livers in preparation for winter and maintain that their hand-feeding is no more cruel or inhumane than the many routine procedures used to fatten and prepare other livestock for human consumption.

“It’s time to retire foie gras from the menus of a civilized society,” says Vandhana Bala, general counsel for the Los Angeles-based animal rights group, Mercy for Animals. “Shoving metal pipes down the throats of these birds and forcing them to eat so their livers will engorge is inherently cruel and inhumane and should be stopped,” she says. She points to countries including Argentina, Poland, Britain, Norway, and Sweden with similar bans.

However, notes Marcus Henley, operations manager for Hudson Valley Foie Gras, one of the two US-based foie gras farms, the ban has not picked up momentum in the US. In the wake of the 2004 ban, activists took the fight to more than half a dozen states around the country, including Oregon, New York, and Massachusetts. Similar bans failed in every case, he says.

“We went and testified and encouraged people to come and inspect our farms,” he says, “and as a result no other legislation ever passed.”

Mr. Henley also points to the report submitted by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) in 2004, in advance of the governor signing the bill into law. The report recommended against the ban, noting that it did not find the procedure to be detrimental to the animals, he points out.

But even amid the debate, most food experts say this debate is a sign of a much larger discussion going on within society. "There are rational arguments on both sides,” says Chicago Tribune reporter Mark Caro, author of “The Foie Gras Wars.”

“You could say the foie gras guys are being picked on,” he says pointing to the graphic videos posted on the animal rights group website.

The images of sick and dying animals are emotional, he agrees. But, he notes, “There are sick animals on any farm.” He says targeting the foie gras industry, which consists of two farms in the US, “is low-hanging fruit.”

Mr. Caro suggests that this points to a larger fight, which addresses the thornier question. “How much manipulation of an animal is OK?” he says.

Indeed, says Babson College professor Frederick Opie, who teaches a course on food traditions, “History is moving towards more consciousness of where food comes from and how it is being prepared.” Traditions that one era may have condoned may not endure, he adds.

These debates are part of a larger awakening, agrees Charles Camosy, professor of theology at Fordham University and author of "For the Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action."

Most Americans understand that animals are not mere tools for us to do with as we please, he says, adding that the drama and outrage surrounding National Football League quarterback Michael Vick's role in an illegal dog-fighting ring made that clear.

However, particularly because we don't like to think about where our food comes from, he adds via e-mail, "We are much more disconnected from the processes by which food comes to us."

When confronted with the reality of how we use animals as mere tools, without thought for their welfare, "most people are horrified and disgusted," says Professor Camosy.

Even Benedict XVI, shortly before becoming pope, specifically mentioned the practice of foie gras as immoral, he says.

"Those who care about the dignity of animals should strongly resist the privileged foodie culture and reconnect to the process by which food comes to our plate," Camosy adds.

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