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French cry foul as California foie gras ban nears

The July 1 foie gras ban is shaking things up in the California food world, as chefs host last-minute foie gras parties and some gourmet food shops move out of state. Some suspect that a foie gras black market will soon emerge, while advocates consider the ban an important victory for animal rights.
/ Source: Reuters

Sunday marks a turning point in the culinary calendar of California when a ban enacted nearly eight years ago on foie gras - the gourmet food made from the fattened livers of force-fed ducks and geese — takes effect.

In advance of the July 1 date, some businesses have moved out of state and others have closed. Many chefs and restaurants have held foie gras dinners in a final toast to the delicacy they love, while animal rights activists have cheered and jeered. And in France, the major producer and consumer of the delicacy, politicians and chefs have cried foul.

"I'm sad. I'm disappointed. I'm going to get as much in as I can while we can," said Christina Kurtz, who attended a six-course foie gras dinner recently in the southern California city of Santa Monica, adjacent to Los Angeles.

Foie gras, which means "fatty liver" in French, is produced by force-feeding corn — a process known as gavage — to ducks and geese with a tube-like device in order to enlarge their livers. When fattened, the birds are slaughtered and the organs are harvested to make gourmet dishes.

The process dates back centuries, but in late 2004, then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill banning the sale of foie gras. The law included a grace period to allow chefs and farmers time to find alternative production.

Seven-and-one-half years and no new methods later, any restaurant serving the gourmet food will be fined up to $1,000.

It is unclear exactly how much foie gras is consumed in the state, but well before the ban, some California cooks had banded together as C.H.E.F.S. — the Coalition of Humane and Ethical Farming Standards — to raise awareness about how the ban will impact their profession.

"It's a treat for chefs to get to cook for people to enjoy foie gras. And it's an art, not everyone knows how to cook foie gras properly, and it's unfortunate for the consumer to have it taken away," said Nyesha Arrington, head chef at the Wilshire restaurant in Santa Monica.

The ban impacts a small group of farms and shops that have already moved out of state, including culinary website Mirepoix, which specializes in foie gras and other gourmet foods from a new home in Nevada.

Laurel Pine, founder of Mirepoix, said in the last month sales have boomed with most packages shipping to California. She expects that when June sales have wrapped up, she will have sold four times the usual amount of the delicacy.

"People in California are buying products they can keep in their freezer for the next two years," said Pine.

The ban has been a victory for animal rights activists, who have crashed some of the foie gras dinner parties, holding banners asking "how much cruelty can you swallow," and chanting "that's not dinner, that's diseased liver."

"Foie gras is a barbaric product. It never should have existed. It certainly should not exist now in 2012 ... Culture, tradition, none of it justifies torturing an animal," said Bryan Pease, co-founder of the Animal Protection and Rescue League.

Yet, some farmers and foodmakers don't see gavage as cruel, and point out that the animals' physiology can handle the process. And the French, as a country, are upset.

"It's a question of cultural shock," said Marie-Pierre Pe, general delegate of the Paris-based Interprofessional Committee of Foie Gras. "Could you imagine France banning ketchup or hamburgers?"

Pe told Reuters the economic effect was negligible, given already low exports to the United States due to customs barriers and veterinary rules. France's foreign ministry weighed-in during an online press briefing on Thursday, saying the country "can only regret California's decision."

Star chef Andre Daguin likened the ban to the U.S. Prohibition against alcohol during the 1920s.

"This will spur consumption and people will make fortunes thanks to it. I wouldn't go as far as to say it will create a new Al Capone, but it's like that," Daguin said.

Some Californians agree.

"Truth is, it's going to be like pot where it's supposed to be illegal but anybody can get it," said Los Angeles chef Mark Peel. "If you want to get Cuban rum, you can, if you want to get Cuban cigars, you can ... you just have to do your research and find it."

Indeed, that won't be hard for customers of Mirepoix. Pine plans to open a foie gras shop on the California-Nevada border.

(Additional Reporting by Jean Decotte and John Irish in France; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Leslie Gevirtz)