A new law went into effect this week banning the use of foie gras in California. Gourmet restaurants across the state are in a tizzy. California customers have been gorging for the past month on foie gras in special “farewell dinners” hosted by some of California’s biggest chefs. People want their foie gras, but many are conflicted about the cruel practice of creating this delicious product.
The debate stems from the way foie gras is made. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the dish, foie gras is fattened liver harvested from geese and ducks. The birds are unnaturally fattened by force-feeding them daily through funnel-like tubes. The process leads to the livers becoming unnaturally enlarged, fatter, and ultimately more tasty.
Most people don’t realize that foie gras has a Jewish history. Cato the Elder mentioned the technique of fattening geese in his book, “On Farming.” The Romans used Jewish slaves to fatten their geese by force-feeding. The method was eventually adopted by the Jews. Because of the kosher law banning the mixture of milk and meat, as well as the ban on pork and pork fat, poultry fat (schmaltz) became a staple of the Jewish diet. The process of fattening the livers of geese helped to produce more usable cooking fat. Jews continued the practice for several centuries in the various European communities where they settled.
The new California foie gras law is already being challenged. Yesterday, a Canadian exporter and a Southern California restauranteur both filed suit to invalidate the law. They claim the law is written vaguely and violates the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause. This, in addition to hundreds of restaurants and thousands of customers who are bemoaning the loss of a beloved gourmet delicacy.
Though foie gras is indeed a tasty treat, I tend to fall on the side of the animal’s rights here. Force feeding seems unnatural and unkind. While it’s only one of many animal cruelties in our American agricultural system, I believe that we must begin to take proactive steps to protect animal welfare. That said, I’m not sure if banning foie gras is the answer. Even better, I think, would be to make a fundamental change in how foie gras is raised and harvested. Foie gras can be made in a more humane, natural, sustainable way. Don’t believe me? Check out this TED video featuring Chef Dan Barber, discussing a farm in Spain where foie gras is made naturally.
I do look forward to trying farmer Eduardo Sousa’s foie gras someday, and I hope that other small farmers will follow his example by putting the welfare of the animals first. Meanwhile, I certainly don’t mind living without foie gras. Tell me you’re banning sourdough bread, and we’re going to have a problem. Foie gras? It’s a small sacrifice.
What do you think? Do you believe gavage is cruel? Is banning foie gras the answer? Should we be encouraging farmers to adopt more sensitive and sustainable animal husbandry? Do you think banning foie gras is nonsense? Does this amount to a minor drop in the bucket in a much bigger agricultural problem? Or are you a fan of foie gras, willing to eat it no matter the cost?