As the warm evenings of June slip by and the hot summer nights of July come into focus, a battle rages in the Golden State. California’s animal rights activists have been pitted in a struggle against fine diners and top chefs in the weeks leading up to a ban of foie gras, effective in the state beginning July 1st. Both sides have clearly expressed their feelings in an increasingly contentious environment surrounding the “delicacy.”
Foie gras, or “fatty liver” in its unglamorous English translation, is the result of force-feeding geese and ducks until their livers swell to gigantic proportions, sometimes reaching ten times their natural size. Animal rights activists have consistently decried this practice as cruel and inhumane, yet another travesty against sentient beings in the name of fine dining.
Opponents of the ban claim that the force-feeding, which entails pushing a tube through the mouth and down the throat of the bird and pumping nutrients through it, is not as inhumane as it appears. Many of them make the argument that geese and ducks, not the most pleasant of animals to begin with, don’t feel pain or fear as humans would in response to the tube.
By far the loudest dissenting voices, however, come from the chefs of California. Many of them are outraged that foie gras, a versatile food that is used in a host of gourmet recipes, will no longer be available. Their comments reflect a focus on the food product itself, with little regard to its history or former life. Rumors have been swirling in recent weeks that restaurants may go on serving the forbidden fare after July 1st, risking a fine, or not listing it on the menu and serving it instead for “free” with a $20 glass of wine.
While both sides of the debate are making their points forcefully, there is perhaps a third side that is obscured by their black and white conceptions of the ban. Some animal rights activists have pointed to the ban as a feeble attempt to pacify growing concern over the treatment of animals in the American factory farm system. It is, in a sense, a way of doing something without really doing anything. The ban is important, of course, and makes a modicum of progress towards a more humane food culture in the U.S.; however, it is woefully short of the full reform needed to ensure cruelty-free and healthy practices.
By all accounts, foie gras is being prepared and consumed at a feverish rate in anticipation of the ban, and even if some restaurants cut corners the legislation will undoubtedly decrease its production in California. However, advocates and activists should not be satisfied after July 1st; rather, they should use the ban as a stepping stone to broader and more comprehensive reforms of the American food system.