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Winter 2004 - Act•ionLine

by Lee Hall | Winter 2004

A Faux “Ban” of Foie Gras: 440,000 Ducks Used as Bargaining Chips

It’s a maxim of animal rights law that ending a form of animal use is better than regulating it. Therefore, some advocates will avoid promoting regulatory laws, yet agree to work for outright prohibitions. But are lawmakers in the U.S. in a position to promote animal rights goals? A recent effort to ban one product — Californian pâté de foie gras — provides a striking example of the disappointment legislative efforts can bring.

First, let me assure readers that this article is not intended to dissuade advocates from working for legal change. Positive change is achievable. But, for the most part, working for legal change starts with educating consumers, who are people like you and me. Lawmakers simply cannot do that as well as advocates can. After all, lawmakers must be sensitive to their role of property protectors.

Protecting the interests of the pâté producers took a front seat in the evolution of California’s foie gras bill, known as SB 1520. The law, although based on the language of “prohibition,” does not deliver what it promises.

The making of California’s foie gras bill

SB 1520 was amended to allow more than seven years for a phase-out period, even though it would affect only one company: Sonoma Foie Gras.

In early 2004, California State Senator John Burton (D-San Francisco) introduced SB 1520. As first written, the bill purported to declare the immediate end of forced-feeding of animals for pâté production in California, and to eliminate foie gras from the menus of about 300 California restaurants.1 In theory, the original bill would have meant that foie gras could no longer be produced in California; nor could it be brought in from New York companies.2 Putting aside whether that declaration would hold up under the U.S. Constitution — recall that the Constitution vests power over interstate commerce in the federal government, not with states — the bill seemed a good idea at the time.

Then the amendment phase began. Over the course of negotiations between animal advocacy groups and a foie gras producer, SB 1520 was amended to allow more than seven years for a phase-out period, even though it would affect only one company: Sonoma Foie Gras.

In its final form, the legislation leaves the company to its own devices until July 2012. Between now and then, as Friends of Animals President Priscilla Feral pointed out, “the Sonoma Foie Gras company of California will stuff alive and slaughter approximately 440,000 ducks.”3

Perhaps worst of all, the bill became an agreement to permit the vivisection of ducks, in the interest of proving that duck liver pâté can be produced with attention to animal welfare concerns.4

And that’s not all. The amendments also protect Sonoma Foie Gras from any legal challenges that could potentially shut down its operations.

Perhaps worst of all, the bill became an agreement to permit the vivisection of ducks, in the interest of proving that duck liver pâté can be produced with attention to animal welfare concerns.[4] In other words, the bill promotes a practice whose point is to overturn the very ban that is the law’s stated goal.

What happened to the intent to ban pâté de foie gras in California?

Sonoma Foie Gras wins a lawsuit or two

During the year before the foie gras bill was introduced, activists and reporters exposed the horrific conditions at the Sonoma Foie Gras company. Following this, activists filed suit against Sonoma Foie Gras for violating California’s animal cruelty laws.5

At the time the state law was proposed, consequently, the company was looking for protection from criminal and civil lawsuits.

And indeed, under the law — a law to which these very same activists agreed — the lawsuit is officially dropped, and Californians won’t be able to sue Sonoma Foie Gras for state anti-cruelty violations. Your rights, if you live in California, were bargained away without your permission.

Now, Sonoma Foie Gras enjoys complete immunity from criminal charges, and from future civil lawsuits related to the forced feeding of birds. The company can thus preserve funds that can now be devoted to producing and promoting foie gras. And the company has managed to completely avoid the negative publicity that would have resulted from two pending lawsuits.6

Meanwhile, Sonoma Foie Gras President Guillermo Gonzalez, who, along with two partners, runs Sonoma Saveurs restaurant in Sonoma, was quick to announce that the company will use the delay to launch a public relations campaign promoting the liver pâté they sell to their customers.7 Hailing the law as a victory, Gonzalez said the company would “go on with our business with the continued support of scientists and the agriculture community who have supported us 100 percent every time this issue has come up.”8

The sponsoring senator publicly agreed with this dastardly plan. “If agricultural producers are successful in this endeavor, the ban on foie gras sales and production in California will not occur,” Senator Burton stated.9

The agricultural producers are aiming for success. Francine Bradley, a so-called poultry specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension Service at Davis, commended Sonoma Foie Gras on their methods and the “great care they take with their birds,” lending an air of academic legitimacy to the company and indicating that the point of the university connection is to convince the public that agricultural science can produce a humane foie gras.10 Bradley called California’s new foie gras law “the best thing that could happen” to Sonoma Foie Gras.11

Europeans have long been carrying out experiments designed to prove that a process that swells a bird’s liver up to 10 or 12 times its normal size can go on without harming ducks and geese. They have run into a number of dead ends. But many birds will continue to face experimentation and death over this question. Gonzalez, for example, has suggested the possibility of experiments in genetic engineering.12

And although foie gras production will never be humane, it would be naïve to think that the industry, backed by the agricultural research community, cannot persuade people that it can be. This might be especially likely in California. An article in the journal British Poultry Science in 2001 examined traditional foie gras production similar to that carried out in California, and found “no significant indication that force-feeding is perceived as an acute or chronic stress by male mule ducks.”13

Moreover, the foie gras industry has no shortage of influential defenders of the U.S. meat industry working on the issue. Joy Mench, head of the Center for Animal Welfare at UC Davis, will be on the research panel that studies existing French research and devises new experiments. Mench claims to hold no opinion on whether making foie gras is “cruel.”14 Notably, Professor Mench also sits on McDonald’s Animal Welfare Council.

Owner wines and dines the public as the ducks get stuffed

As noted by Bradley Miller, national director of the Humane Farming Association, the bill could be appropriately called The Sonoma Foie Gras Protection Act.

Guillermo Gonzalez has observed that pâté de foie gras is often shunned by non-Europeans, to whom it is an acquired taste. Therefore, the promise of more than seven years of to carry out the unimpeded promotion of foie gras to moneyed Californians and visitors comes as a substantial reinforcement for the company. This new opportunity will influence the political climate and set the tone for future legislation, and is logically likely to put Sonoma in a better position than the company is in today.

Already, Gonzalez runs a $1.5 million-dollar business by conservative estimates, and 60 percent of the profits come from stuffing ducks alive.15 No wonder Gonzalez, who disliked foie gras at first bite, likes it now. No wonder Gonzalez wants the moneyed U.S. public to acquire this European taste. No wonder Gonzalez asked the governor to sign the measure,16 and even retained a lobbyist to help get SB 1520 passed.17

As noted by Bradley Miller, national director of the Humane Farming Association, the bill could be appropriately called The Sonoma Foie Gras Protection Act. “Completely lost,” said Miller, “are the interests of the ducks that are being tortured right now — and for years to come.” To the terrified ducks owned by Guillermo Gonzales, the law represents justice delayed and denied.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who received pleas from several celebrities to support the bill, signed it into law in September 2004. Schwarzenegger issued a statement announcing that the measure doesn’t ban foie gras, which can continue to be sold and consumed in California. The new law, explained the governor, will give producers more than seven years to “evolve and perfect a humane way for a duck to consume grain to increase the size of its liver through natural processes.”18

Strangely enough, even after the governor’s statement circulated the Internet, many animal protection charities did not seem to know that they had been had. One victory release, which bizarrely juxtaposed a photo of ducks being stuffed with a photo of a beaming Schwarzenegger, called the governor’s signature “one of the greatest victories for farm animals to date” and “a triumph for farm animals everywhere and the individuals who advocate on their behalf.”19 CBS News presented coverage of the bill’s signing under the blunt headline “Foie Gras Foes Win A Round.”

Teri Barnato, national director of the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, applauded the governor’s signature. In response to Friends of Animals’ public comments on the “perverse” nature of the final bill, Barnato retorted, “Some groups have kind of an extreme view of how things should go.” Barnato added that 30 animal advocacy groups supported the final measure and that only two — the Humane Farming Association and Friends of Animals —opposed it.20

Notes for the future

If the foie gras bill is a victory, alas, it’s a victory for vivisection. Gonzalez won more than seven years to work with vivisectors, after already having 18 years of working with them.21

The manipulation of this bill exemplifies the limits of the legislative process when it comes to valuing non-economic ideals. The political games surrounding this law have been outlandish enough to reaffirm the importance of educating people about the realities behind foie gras production, the benefits of a plant-based diet, and the delight of discovering vegetarian delicacies. In the final analysis, it is not the law but the consumer who will decide the future of this unethical product — in California and throughout the world.

Additional facts researched by Daniel Hammer

Foie gras (which sounds better in French than its English translation, “fat liver”) is made by forcing a male duck or goose to swallow up to a pound of warm corn, fat, salt and water two to three times a day for 12 to 30 days until the liver expands from about 3 ounces to around 1.5 pounds or more. The process involves pushing a feeding tube down a bird’s throat. With the aid of an electric motor or a pneumatic system, a pound of food can be pumped in to the bird’s stomach in only a few seconds.

The corn and fat mixture lacks choline, an essential amino acid. The nutrient-deficient diet destroys the birds’ metabolism, causing a debilitating metabolic disease known as hepatic lipidosis or hepatic steatosis — a condition in which the liver collects excessive fat.

Most fat liver is produced from Moulard ducks, resilient hybrids of Muscovy and Pekin ducks. All Moulards are produced by artificial insemination.

Only male birds are used in foie gras production. Female birds, whose livers reportedly contain too many veins to produce good foie gras, are either killed or sold for their flesh.

  • 1. CBS News, “U.S.: Foie Gras Foes Win A Round” (30 Sep. 2004) http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/09/30/national/main646479.shtml, citing information from the California Restaurant Association.
  • 2. The language of the original bill “prohibits the force-feeding of a bird for the purposes of enlarging its liver” and the “sale of a product in the state if it is the result of a bird being force-fed.”
  • 3. See Paul Payne’s article “Sonoma Foie Gras Producer Hopes to Show Process Humane,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat (12 July 2004): “About 55,000 ducks were processed at the farm in 2002 to make the high-end treat that sells for up to $45 a pound.” At that rate, by July 2012, about 440,000 more ducks will be stuffed and slaughtered.
  • 4. “Gonzalez says he’ll use grace period in a proposed law to form a panel of researchers to prove ducks don’t suffer,” reported Paul Payne in the same article.
  • 5. Patricia Henley, “Ducks Hatch Lawsuit Duel,” Sonoma News.com (24 Oct. 2003) http://www.sonomanews.com/articles/2003/10/24/news/top_stories/news03.txt.
  • 6. Andrew Gumbel and John Lichfield, “An Ending Made in Hollywood for an Epic Fight over Foie Gras,” Belfast Telegraph (1 Oct. 2004) (noting that two lawsuits pending against the company have been dismissed, by operation of the new law).
  • 7. To this end Gonzalez plans to use his Web site, http://www.sonomafoiegras.com, and lobby sympathetic legislators.
  • 8. Jim Wasserman, “Gov. Schwarzenegger Signs Bill to Ban Force Feeding of Birds,” Associated Press (29 Sep. 2004).
  • 9. CBS News, “U.S.: Foie Gras Foes Win A Round” (30 Sep. 2004).
  • 10. Lynn Alley, “California, New York Legislators Propose Foie Gras Ban,” Wine Spectator (24 Feb. 2004).
  • 11. Andrew Gumbel and John Lichfield, “An Ending Made in Hollywood for an Epic Fight over Foie Gras,” Belfast Telegraph (1 Oct. 2004).
  • 12. National Public Radio, “California Law Would Regulate Foie Gras Production” (Day to Day, Jul. 13, 2004); audiotape available to the public at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=3363038.
  • 13. Cited in Andrew Gumbel and John Lichfield, “An Ending Made in Hollywood for an Epic Fight over Foie Gras,” Belfast Telegraph (1 Oct. 2004).
  • 14. Paul Payne, “Sonoma Foie Gras Producer Hopes to Show Process Humane,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat (12 July 2004).
  • 15. Bill Analysis, SB 1520 Senate Bill, Senate Third Reading on the bill as amended 17 Aug. 2004. The company’s actual sales may be well over $2 million. U.S. foie gras sales have been reported at $17.5 million in 2003, with California’s only company accounting for 16% of those sales. See T.J. Shepstone, “The Economic Importance of the New York State Foie Gras Industry,” (Mar. 2004) (cited by Nicole Niebisch and Amy Tarr in the “Foie Gras Food Debate” at StarChefs.com).
  • 16. See Mike Dunn, “Foie-gras Ban Isn’t All Bad, Supplier Says,” The Sacramento Bee (6 Oct. 2004).
  • 17. California resident Rose Lerberg spoke with Beau Biller, a lobbyist, and confirmed that Biller had been hired to represent Sonoma Foie Gras in lobbying for SB 1520. See Gary Bogue, “Bill Against Foie Gras Will Do More Harm Than Good,” Contra Costa Times (10 Sep. 2004). Also see Humane Farming Association press release “Stop the Legalized Force-Feeding of Ducks and Geese; Oppose ‘The Sonoma Foie Gras Protection Act’” (1 Aug. 2004), quoting Sonoma Foie Gras owner Guillermo Gonzalez as stating to lawmakers: “I want to express my appreciation for allowing us to continue in operation! We are very appreciative.”
  • 18. CBS News, “U.S.: Foie Gras Foes Win A Round” (30 Sep. 2004).
  • 19. Farm Sanctuary press release, “Governor Schwarzenegger Signs SB 1520 Into Law!” (29 Sep. 2004).
  • 20. See Mike Dunn, “Foie-gras Ban Isn’t All Bad, Supplier Says,” The Sacramento Bee (6 Oct. 2004). In fact, other individuals and groups opposed the amended bill. See, for example, Animal CARE Foundation Alert, “Please help Veto California SB 1520” (dated 9 Sep. 2004). Animal CARE Foundation president Sabina De Giacomo, DVM blasted the bill’s amendments: “In fact,” wrote Dr. De Giacomo, “these modifications practically invite cruelty.”
  • 21. See Paul Payne, “Sonoma Foie Gras Producer Hopes to Show Process Humane,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat (12 July 2004) (noting that Gonzalez founded Sonoma Foie Gras in 1986). Francine Bradley, the previously mentioned “poultry specialist,” has stated: “I’ve known the Gonzalez family since they first came to California. From the beginning, they wanted to do everything the correct way. They came to the university for advice before they bought land or birds, and I’ve always been impressed with the great care they take with their birds.” Quoted in Lynn Alley, “Foie Gras Flap Prompts San Francisco Chefs to Reexamine Menus,” Wine Spectator (4 Sep. 2003).
Lee Hall

Act•ionLine Winter 2004

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