Foie gras: it's French for ‘fatty liver,’ and it's produced by deliberately overfeeding ducks or geese. The birds' livers become enlarged up to ten times their normal size and the result is many a chef’s delight: a rich, creamy delicacy enjoyed the world over. Foie gras can be seared like a steak or smoothed into a pâté, and it's at the center of a major legal flap between California chefs and animal rights activists.
The process of feeding the birds to enlarge their livers is called gavage. The ducks or geese are force-fed more food than they would usually eat, and therein lies the controversy. Opponents claim that the process of force-feeding the fowl is detrimental to their health and well-being. Foie gras enthusiasts argue that ducks and geese, which don't have a gag reflex, are used to swallowing fish whole and putting on weight for migratory flights.
In California, the practice of force-feeding was banned more than 7 years ago, but producers of the delicacy were given a grace period during which they could come up with a more humane way to feed the birds. In fact, the sole producer of foie gras in California endorsed the bill. The grace period is up on June 30. On July 1, it will be illegal in California to sell products that are made as a result of force-feeding animals.
Cosentino has joined about 100 other notable California chefs and culinary professionals, including Thomas Keller, Michael Chiarello and Tyler Florence, who have formed the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards, or CHEFS. They’re advocating humane feeding methods that produce a high quality product and "support a broader standard for ethical treatment of animals and humane farming practices," according to their website. To some, their efforts seem too little too late.
As the deadline nears, tempers are starting to flare. Cosentino has received death threats against himself and his family, and protesters have picketed outside his restaurant. Tensions are clearly running high. Cosentino thinks this is part of a larger debate.
“[Animal rights activists] have an agenda for a vegan country," he says. "Once this goes through, they’re going on to the next meat item they deem unfit.”
He would prefer that the activists go after factory farming of other animals: “We’re pumping the food we eat with antibiotics. Let’s focus on those big pictures.”
Paul Shapiro, the Vice President of Farm Animal Protection for the Humane Society points to a “whole host” of animal protection projects he’s working on, and rattles off laws the state of California has passed protecting cattle, chickens, pigs and sharks. Of this current battle, he says, “How much suffering are we willing to inflict on animals who stand completely helpless before us? Shoving a pipe down a bird’s throat multiple times a day is cruel, and the state had a right to ban it.”
Shapiro points to studies that say the mortality rate is 10 to 20 times higher for force-fed ducks. He says, “The ducks display really serious fear and aversion. They huddle in a corner. They have to be caught by hand and dragged to have this pipe shoved down their throats.”
Cosentino has been to Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York, one of four farms in the U.S. which produces foie gras. “I found very comfortable living environments,” he says. As for the ducks huddled in the corner, he rebuts, “It’s the same concept as if you put on a monster outfit and walked into a preschool.”
“It’s OK to have disagreements, but to ban something outright doesn’t work,” Cosentino finds. “Let’s focus on making something right.”
As it stands, CHEFS needs a Californian legislator to introduce a repeal bill. So far, no one has offered to do so. Senate President Pro Tem and Democrat Darrell Steinberg told reporters yesterday, “I'm not going to allow an issue like that to preoccupy the Legislature.”
If foie gras fans did find someone to introduce legislation on their behalf, the state would likely take up the bill. But, it’s unsure if they’ll find someone to swallow their 11th hour appeal.