Form the battle lines: the foie gras war has come to town. Activists from the American Coalition for Animal Defense (www.americad.info), a nationwide animal rights group, recently opened an office in Oakland. Their goal is to conduct a campaign of education, protest, and legislative advocacy to halt the production and sale of foie gras in California. The organization, which formed in 1997 out of a loose coalition of student-run groups in New York state, originally targeted the fur industry.
To make foie gras (French for "fat liver"), ducks or geese are force-fed cornmeal through a metal tube for several weeks. "[They're fed] up to seven pounds a day," says ACAD spokesperson Bryan Pease; a PETA brochure claims the human equivalent would be sixteen pounds of spaghetti daily. The birds' livers swell to six to ten times normal size, and become milky-hued, delicately flavored, and unctuously rich. (Their much-prized breasts are sold as magret.)
The practice of fattening up birds to swell their livers goes back to Egyptian times. The Larousse Gastronomique reports that Romans force-fed geese with figs. In France foie gras is most often eaten in the home as a Christmas specialty.
Pressure from animal-rights activists convinced Switzerland, Britain, and several other European countries to outlaw foie gras production, but Switzerland and Britain are two of the top four importers of foie gras from France. There are two foie gras producers in the States: Hudson Valley Farms in New York and one far closer to home: Sonoma Foie Gras in Sonoma County.
ACAD has picketed cooking demonstrations by the owner of Hudson Valley Farms and protested at Manhattan restaurants that serve the new veal. The group plans to do the same in California, and they hope to spread their legislative activities nationally so that foie gras farmers can't set up shop in other states.
The group has also targeted the San Diego tourist board for its statewide advertising slogan: "Feed the part of you that foie gras simply can't." "We feel that the tourism department shouldn't glorify foie gras or make it seem socially acceptable," says Pease. Likewise, he isn't very subtle about the class aspects that surround foie gras.
Does force-feeding cause the ducks excessive pain? Without a doubt. Pease claims that the feeding process -- during which the ducks are kept almost immobile in small cages -- can rupture the ducks' stomachs, tear their esophagi, and make breathing difficult. And is force-feeding ducks for their livers really any crueler than commercial egg-laying techniques, where debeaked hens spend their lives packed into crowded cages without room to ever spread their wings?
For modern urbanites, the ethical quandary that eating animal products such as veal and foie gras presents us stems from our awareness that the personal relationship between food source and dinner plate has disappeared. On one side, we're disturbed by this fact; on the other, we're relieved to claim that our own hands are bloodless. It's only recently that artisanal, special-occasion products such as foie gras are being made in mass quantities. Somehow we find more horror in the picture of a row of caged ducks awaiting the pass of an automated force-feeding machine than we do with that of a farm wife holding the Christmas goose between her knees and pushing food into its belly with a funnel and plunger.
As a food critic I can neither justify refusing to eat foie gras nor buying it for myself. On my own time, I make an effort to buy meat that reflects sustainable, "humane" hunting and farming practices. I made my peace with eating animal flesh of all kinds long ago. I will continue to eat foie gras -- as I do farm-raised salmon, commercial bacon, and yes, the occasional veal shank -- in moderation, when circumstances demand, and with relish. I keep returning to the words of one of the chefs I talked to when researching this article: "Foie gras is not the enemy."