Gary Danko pan-sears a thick slice of duck liver in the kitchen of his San Francisco restaurant, letting it sizzle to a golden brown. He garnishes the delicate meat, better known as foie gras, with figs and champagne grapes. “I sell probably 40 orders a night or more,” says the chef, who opened Restaurant Gary Danko in 1999. “When the protesters are here, double that.”
Not for long. Danko and other chefs will have to remove the dish from their menus in July when California becomes the first state to outlaw the production and sale of foie gras. Animal-rights activists are pressuring restaurants to stop serving the delicacy, which sells for about $50 a pound, before the ban goes into effect. At issue is the way it is made: by force-feeding ducks or geese corn through a tube to fatten their livers, a practice activists say is cruel. (In the U.S., most foie gras come from ducks.) “These birds have done nothing to deserve this fate,” says Paul Shapiro, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States. “It’s an inhumane practice that should be relegated to the history books.” Lindsay Rajt, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Los Angeles, says the group has persuaded the owners of several well-known restaurants to stop serving foie gras, including those operated by California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom’s PlumpJack Management Group.
Foie gras purveyors say the process of force-feeding mimics behavior in the wild, where the birds gorge themselves before migrating. It causes no pain, they claim, arguing that opponents are trying to impose vegetarian values on everyone else. “We are not contemplating changes to our production methods because they produce a premium product that is in full compliance with our federal regulators,” says Allison Lee, a spokeswoman for Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Ferndale, N.Y., one of three U.S. producers. The company, which has sales of $15 million and turns out 250,000 ducks each year, is considering challenging the constitutionality of the California law in court. “To have an entity regulated at the federal level restricted at the state level creates an unfair trade practice,” Lee says.
The controversy has divided California’s gourmands and left the state’s most prominent chefs with a difficult decision: Obey the law and lose a favorite dish of high-end diners, or fight it and risk fines of up to $1,000 a day—and the wrath of protesters. Laurent Quenioux, visiting chef at Starry Kitchen in Los Angeles, has already made up his mind: “They can send me the foie gras police.”
Roland Passot, the French-born owner of La Folie in San Francisco, doesn’t go quite that far. “I think we need to get together and fight it,” he says. “We eat meat. We raise those ducks to be eaten. We don’t raise them to become pets.” Still, Passot, whose menu features three foie gras dishes, says he’ll remove them when the ban goes into effect. “The foie gras lovers will get their fix somewhere, somehow,” he says. “It’s going to be an underground thing.”
A duck foie gras lobe, or entire liver, costs $99.99 per 1.85 pounds on average at D’Artagnan, a distributor in Newark, N.J. Owner Ariane Daguin says the industry has formed a group called the Artisan Farmers Alliance. “We are looking right now at the different ways to overturn that ban, encouraged by our success in Chicago,” Daguin says. The first city to outlaw foie gras, in 2006, Chicago lifted the ban two years later at the behest of Mayor Richard Daley after prominent chefs rebelled. In California, John Burton, former president pro tem of the state Senate, introduced the legislation at the prompting of animal-rights activists. “If you ever see how they cram this food down the geese’s necks, it just ain’t right,” says Burton, now the state’s Democratic Party chairman.
There is one way for chefs and foie gras purveyors to get around the ban: develop a different method of making the delicacy. The California statute doesn’t outlaw foie gras per se—just livers that are the product of force-feeding. The law’s supporters hoped the threat of a ban would encourage producers to come up with a less invasive way to plump up the organ. Enforcement of the law, passed in 2004 when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor, was postponed for eight years to give foie gras makers time to adapt.
They didn’t, in part because there is no obvious other way to make foie gras, and in part because producers insist that force-feeding ducks and geese does not harm them. Emily Patterson-Kane, an animal welfare scientist at the American Veterinary Medical Assn. in Schaumburg, Ill., says it’s not clear how stressful it is for the birds. Ducks don’t have a gag reflex, “So they can gulp down relatively large things,” she says. “It’s still probably unpleasant to some extent.” Patterson-Kane parts ways with foie gras producers when they say they’re merely reproducing what wild ducks and geese do naturally. In the wild, a duck might double the size of its liver, she says. “With a foie gras duck, we’re looking at an eight- to tenfold increase. We’ve taken that natural tendency to store fat in the liver and we’ve pushed that a lot further.”