California bans foie gras; Europe fights on

  • Wednesday 27 June 2012

As California’s foie gras ban finally comes into force on 1 July, European opponents of the delicacy face an uphill battle to persuade the public against it.

Foie gras

Foie gras geese on an artisanal farm in Gers, France

The California ban – which prohibits the sale of any product derived from the force-feeding of birds – was signed it into law by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in September 2004.

Some welcome the ban – Chicago restaurateur Charlie Trotter outlawed foie gras unilaterally in 2005 – but others have vowed to fight it or find a way round it.

‘It’s unlike any other animal product that I know,’ Jon Shook of restaurant Animal in Los Angeles said.

Force-feeding of animals is already banned under EU law, and it is expressly banned in 17 countries worldwide, including the UK.

However, in France, where around 90% of the world’s foie gras is produced and consumed, in an industry which employs 30,000 people, is worth €1.8bn, and slaughters 34m ducks a year, campaigning organisation L214 points out that EU law is flouted as a matter of state policy.

The French Code Rural officially protects foie gras producers, and gavage (force-feeding), as part of French heritage, spokeswoman Johanne Mielcarek told Decanter.com.

The fact that 57% of French producers have PGI (Protected Geographic Indication) status means they can claim EU funding.

L214 has filed official complaints in EU courts against French producers, but, Mielcarek says, ‘no infringement procedure has been taken.’

L214 also claims foie gras does not have as much support in France as is thought, with surveys showing 44% in favour of a ban on force-feeding, and 60% agreeing it causes suffering.

However, Mielcarek said, ‘Only 18% actually refuse to eat foie gras, especially at Christmas, when it is part of the traditional menu.’

As in California, UK restaurateurs and retailers are divided. Major department stores such as Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and House of Fraser don't carry foie gras, and neither do most supermarkets. Fortnum and Mason still sells it and is the site of regular protests, the latest led by Hollywood star Steven Berkoff, campaigning for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatments of Animals).

Martin Lam, who owns restaurant Ransome’s Dock in London, serves foie gras ‘very rarely’, but when he does it is very popular, he said. He agreed that force-feeding was cruel but said perspective is important. ‘There is far more injustice done to millions of animals,’ he said.

Another London restaurateur, Rowley Leigh of Le Café Anglais, said he 'shared a certain distaste' for the cruelty inherent in foie gras production, but thought that to legislate against it was 'absurd'.

'When you imagine what kind of chicken Californians put in their mouths every day, foie gras is irrelevant. It's a soundbite decision, there will be a few distraught gourmets, but it'll have no other effect.'

Decanter contributing editor Fiona Beckett, who foreswore foie gras after visiting an artisanal producer in 2008, told Decanter.com, ‘I'd actually prefer to see foie gras become as socially unacceptable as wearing fur rather than illegal, but people aren't going to stop eating it voluntarily. So I admire the Californians for their stance and think it will have an influence in the US.'

Beckett said she doubted it could happen in the UK. ‘Though you can't rule it out. We banned smoking after all. I certainly see less of it in restaurants these days.’

While France dominates the world’s foie gras production, Hungary, Bulgaria, Canada, the US and China all have small foie gras industries.

There are two producers in the United States, one of which is Sonoma Foie Gras in Farmington in California’s Central Valley, which will close later this month, its owner says, as a result of the ban.


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