Did California learn anything from Chicago's foie gras ban?

Four years after city repealed ban, California bidding adieu to foie gras

Before Charlie Trotter revealed he had quit serving foie gras and suggested eating the liver of fellow Chicago chef Rick Tramonto, before Ald. Joe Moore proposed that the city ban the sale of the fat livers of force-fed ducks, before the City Council enacted the ban and prompted Mayor Richard M. Daley to declare it "the silliest law that they've ever passed," before two years of foie gras prohibition followed as some Chicago restaurants continued serving the forbidden dish by giving it away or offering it under other names, and before the City Council repealed the ban with almost as little discussion as it had passed it in the first place, there was California.

On Sept. 29, 2004, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law Senate Bill 1520, which bans the force-feeding of birds and the sale of products derived from this process. The law would remove foie gras from hundreds of menus up and down the state and would shutter California's sole foie gras farm, Sonoma Foie Gras, one of only three such farms that distribute throughout the U.S.

The catch: It wouldn't take effect until July 1, 2012.

So the California law became a ticking time bomb as Chicago embarked upon its foie gras adventure, protests sprang up and faded in cities such as Philadelphia and Seattle and legislatures in New Jersey, Hawaii and other states defeated anti-foie gras measures even as cities such as San Francisco and San Diego passed ordinances encouraging restaurants to remove the fat livers from their menus.

Chicago's repeal gave a big boost to the chefs and producers who wanted to keep foie gras legal, but now the pendulum has swung the other way. California is bigger than Chicago, after all, and the two-year Chicago ban didn't legislate a farm out of existence. And at least for now, California doesn't look inclined to reverse its decision.

"While the foie gras lobby was very influential in Chicago, it's a very different political dynamic in California," said Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society of the United States. "The author of the bill is the chairman of the California Democratic Party, and he's a very influential person in California politics."

Marcus Henley, operations manager for Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York, agreed that former state Senate President and current California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton is a major force.

"He's been very tenacious in defending the bill, so I don't think in an election year there are people who want to go forward in the legislature in the face of the Democratic Party chairman," Henley said.

Pushing a bill through two state legislative bodies is certainly tougher than getting the Chicago City Council to shift gears. Chicago's initial foie gras ban passed when the ordinance was slipped into the April 2006 omnibus bill containing thousands of pieces of legislation and thus passed 48-1.

After two years of lobbying from the Illinois Restaurant Association, less than vigorous enforcement of the law and protestations of international embarrassment among some aldermen and the mayor, the council repealed the ban 37-6, also with no debate.

"It was a unique situation in Chicago," said chef, author and TV host Anthony Bourdain, an outspoken opponent of foie gras bans. "You basically had one guy who enacted a ban and then another guy who overturned it. I think Chicago got lucky. I don't think that's likely to happen (in California)."

After the repeal, animal-rights activists pretty much dropped the matter in Chicago. But protesters against foie gras in California have been trying to shore up popular opinion against the dish while chefs rally to save the delicacy.

Sonoma Foie Gras is basically history at this point. Owner Guillermo Gonzalez, a Salvadoran immigrant, leases his farm, and the owner didn't extend him beyond June 30 for obvious reasons.

"The clock is ticking, and we're shutting down," Gonzalez said.

Still, he's taking flak from anti-foie forces for a letter he wrote in 2004 in which he said he'd have the "moral stature" to close his business in 2012 if science and government had not deemed his farming methods to be acceptable by then. That letter coincided with his agreement to go along with the California ban provided that the state grant him the 71/2-year grace period and indemnify him from animal-rights groups' lawsuits that were threatening his business. (See sidebar.)

Shapiro complained that Gonzalez essentially has "reversed himself" by opposing the ban now. "At some point you have to reap what you sow," the Humane Society official said.

But Gonzalez argued that science and government never bothered to investigate whether the farm's treatment of ducks is cruel, so it's not fair for his practices, which he believes to be "acceptable animal husbandry," to be vilified.

"My personal lobbying right now is for those studies to happen to set the record straight," Gonzalez said. "Right now they are condemning me without actual proof."

Despite the long grace period, foie gras defenders were slow to take action against the California ban. In April more than 100 California chefs, including Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in Napa Valley, coalesced around the new Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards, which laid out practices for the treatment of food animals, including force-feeding (or "hand-feeding") ducks in pens, not cramped cages (as are employed in Canada and France).

Shapiro, no surprise, found the notion of animal-welfare standards that allowed force-feeding to be laughable. Meanwhile, California celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, a former foie gras enthusiast, has lobbied his fellow chefs to accept the ban, prompting Bourdain and others to label him a sell-out and hypocrite given that Hudson Valley revealed he continued to buy its foie gras after 2010, and a report last month from the website Inside Scoop SF showed foie gras on the menu of a Puck restaurant in Singapore.

Meanwhile, the foie gras farms and Newark, N.J.-based distributor D'Artagnan never were able to reach a consensus on how to combat the California legislation, which bans not only the livers but also the meat and, as animal activists have informed North Face and Patagonia, feathers of force-fed birds. Henley said a federal lawsuit against the ban, as attempted but dismissed in Chicago, could be "crushing" in terms of cost without guaranteed success. Henley and D'Artagnan owner Ariane Daguin said lawyers are exploring possible loopholes in the meantime.

"We're looking at how to make this law so ineffective and so ridiculous in California in the same fashion it happened in Chicago," Daguin said.

Said Shapiro: "There are a lot of causes people can champion, and if people think their cause is to defend this table treat that California thinks is so cruel that they have declared it a crime, that speaks volumes, I think."

What happens next? Shapiro said the Humane Society has no immediate plans to push foie gras bans elsewhere; it has been focusing more on legislation against battery cages for hens, veal crates and pig gestation crates.

But Bourdain said he assumes the animal-rights groups — led, he stressed, by vegans with an anti-meat agenda — will continue this crusade against an expensive delicacy that sounds disgusting to the uninitiated.

"I think emboldened by this success, they will seek other mush-minded communities that will be most likely to wrongheadedly decide this is the right thing to do," Bourdain said. "Who wants to hurt a cute animal? No one. If positioned correctly, it's easy to see this is a winning argument."

"After that, it's going be something else," agreed Didier Durand, the Cyrano's Farm Kitchen French chef who fought Chicago's ban. "That's an attempt not to have any freedom of choice."

Bourdain characterized the activists, such as Bryan Pease, co-founder of the San Diego-based Animal Rescue and Protection League, as extremists. Pease said the same of the chefs defending the dish.

"Nobody thinks it's OK to force-feed animals to enlarge their organs," Pease said. "It's just not something most people find acceptable."

Bourdain at least agreed with that last point. "If you put the matter to a vote in a general election, foie gras would lose," he said.

Here's one thing that hasn't changed since Chicago wrestled with foie gras: The public debate continues to be more about inflaming emotions than fostering serious discussion about the treatment of food animals.

In an interview last month on KCRW public radio in Santa Monica, Burton said of San Francisco chef and foie gras proponent Chris Cosentino: "I'd like to have him and all these other fancy chefs sit down at a table and let me put a tube in their mouth and put a bunch of oats and feed through and see how they like it."

Cosentino, who said he has been harassed for his pro-foie gras stance, responded, "I don't like being threatened, Mr. Burton."

When the host asked Burton whether he meant to threaten the chef, the Democratic Party chairman replied: "What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If they don't think force-feeding is bad, they ought to be force-fed."

Mark Caro's book "The Foie Gras Wars" was published by Simon & Schuster in 2009.

mcaro@tribune.com

Tribune @MarkCaro
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