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There's Money in Cruelty: California Chefs Fight Foie Gras Ban

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Foie gras is a food "delicacy" that requires geese or ducks to be force fed until their liver becomes fatty. Video from foie gras operations shows animals with bloody throats, struggling to hold their heads up and breathe. Yet, like shark fin soup, there's money in foie gras. Odes to its "butter-soft texture and rich, subtle taste" appear regularly in the New York Times including its Style magazine which extolled the "home of Foie Gras" where "pleasures abound" in May, replete with photos of penned birds.

Now, as the deadline for California's first-in-the nation ban on foie gras, chefs contemplate defying the ban (and facing fines of up to $1,000) as they serve foie gras going away parties or "wakes."

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The same backlash happened when a short-lived foie gras ban passed the Chicago City Council in 2006. Top Chicago chefs created a group called Chicago Chefs for Choice and held Foie Gras Fest fundraisers with all-foie gras menus. One restaurant, Sweets & Savories, featured a Kobe beef burger topped with foie gras patež and seared foie gras accompanied by pumpkin flan to push the envelope. Graham Elliot Bowles, chef at Avenues in the Peninsula Hotel, offered a foie gras tasting menu with a foie gras custard, mousse, brioche, vinaigrette, lollipop, and milk shake for $238 per diner. A fourth course was a terrine of foie gras, snow frozen and whirred into a powder and served with kangaroo, lime, eucalyptus, and melon.

Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel saw humor in the idea that cruelty to birds matters and wrote, "Has City Council finally quacked?" Will undercover "quack-easies" spring up? Former Chicago mayor Richard Daley also ridiculed the ban.

It was a question of rights, charged Chicago chefs. "Why should someone tell us what we can or can't serve, buy or produce that the FDA puts its stamp on daily?" asked chef Michael Tsonton of Copperblue restaurant. "We live in a free-market society and if people are truly offended they won't buy it," agreed Sweets & Savories owner David Richards, in a vote for market-determined cruelty.

And why single out foie gras, asked the chefs. "Look how much veal this country goes through with all the Italian restaurants and the scallopinis [sic]," said chef Rick Tramonto of Tru restaurant when rival chef Charlie Trotter renounced foie gras on his menu, in advance of the ban. "It's killing those babies, right?"

Paul Kahan, chef at Chicago's Blackbird restaurant, joined in to the "you think that's bad" argumentation . "There are so many things people eat every day that are raised in an inhumane way," he said. "The way chickens are raised, if people saw it . . . commodity pork, I could just go on." What about rabbit and squab? added celebrity chef Grant Achatz.

Even the American Veterinary Medical Association employed the "you think that's bad" argument to keep foie gras legal. Walter K. McCarthy, DVM, an AVMA delegate at 2005 hearings, cautioned that banning foie gras could lead to resolutions against veal calves and other "production agriculture." The death rate of ducks and geese in foie gras production "is much less than at most agricultural facilities," said the veterinarian. (Then why isn't the AVMA regulating agricultural facilities?) "We cannot condemn an accepted agricultural practice on . . . emotion," said McCarthy.

It is the same thing that's said about the "accepted" practices of water-boarding and genital mutilation, charge foie gras opponents.

Martha Rosenberg's new book, Born with a Junk Food Deficiency, has been the top health policy book since its April release. She will appear on Book TV's After Words on C-SPAN this month.

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist and cartoonist, who writes about public health Read more stories by Martha Rosenberg.

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