Chicago Food Fight Turns Ugly Over Foie Gras

When the Chicago city council decided to cut the fat out in late April, they weren’t talking about the governmental budget.

Instead, they were placing themselves at the forefront of a movement that has animal rights activists cheering and America’s gourmands shaking in their bibs.

The Chicago ordinance, passed nearly unanimously, gives Windy City restaurants 60 days — until the end of June — before they have to stop selling foie gras, the fattened liver of specially raised ducks and geese.

“I’m sure they’re going to take it and run with it,” said celebrated chef Rick Tramonto, of Tru and numerous other Chicago-area restaurants. “They’ll go after veal and lobsters and get to ban all of it until we’re all vegetarians.”

The decision immediately set off a firestorm of debate, prompting the de facto king of Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley, to disparage the new law as frivolous in light of the city’s problems with gangs, drugs and rising gas prices.

Many also note that Chicago — the “Hog Butcher for the World” — beat out famously animal-friendly California to the punch. In the autumn of 2004, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that would end the sale of foie gras by 2012.

“I think it indicates how seriously this brutality is,” said Alderman Joe Moore, who sponsored the legislation. “We’re not San Francisco, we’re not some far-left wing city or city council. We’re the heartland of America, the breadbasket to the world, the hog butcher of the world, and we were the locale for Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle,’ a really solid blue-collar, working-class city. If you have a city like Chicago standing up and opposing this thing, that tells you something about the level of brutality associated with this product.”

Animal rights groups agreed, and laud the ban as a first step.

“What Chicago has done and California has done sends a message to the American public and our elected officials that people are not insensitive to the pain and suffering of these birds, and hopefully more and more legislators and more restaurants and so forth will get the message,” said Dr. Elliot Katz, veterinarian and president and founder of San Rafael, Calif.-based In Defense of Animals. “It’s a mass movement across the globe they’re paying attention to.”

He said he hopes the attention the Chicago ban is shining on foie gras will spill over to other issues that raise the faux fur hackles of animal rights activists, such as the mistreatment of veal calves and factory farming.

Katz may have good reason to think things are looking ducky, on the foie gras front at least.

Bolstered by their victory in Chicago, activists are trying to get a similar ordinance passed in Philadelphia. Grassroots and legislative pushes to ban the product gained momentum in New York state, New Jersey, Oregon, Massachusetts and Illinois before failing, and supporters vow to keep on fighting until foie gras’ goose is cooked everywhere.

And by June, duck supplier Grimaud Farms will have ended its contract with Sonoma Foie Gras, under pressure from natural-food chain Whole Foods, which made it clear that it would not do business with anyone who dealt in the damnable duck product.

Sonoma Foie Gras filed suit against Whole Foods in January, claiming intentional interference
with contract, and the trial got under way on May 5.

Overseas, it’s been banned in several European nations and in Israel. Even Pope Benedict XVI has taken an anti-foie gras stance.

“If it weren’t cruel or painful, you wouldn’t have so many countries that ban it,” Katz said. “People aren’t ignorant over there, and it’s beginning to show that people aren’t ignorant over here either.”

The anti-foie gras people’s argument comes down to one aspect of the process: gavage. Ducks and geese have a naturally elastic esophagus that allows to swallow relatively enormous amounts of food so that they can store fat around the liver for their winter migration.

Foie gras producers take advantage of this, force-feeding the animals a high-starch diet via a
funnel, and causing the birds to more than double their weight. The controversy comes about when the question of pain comes up. Producers say the birds lack a gag reflex and feel none.

“Ducks have a natural ability to build fat around the liver, not in a deleterious manner,” Michael Ginor, owner of Hudson Valley Foie Gras, in Ferndale, N.Y., said. “It’s a natural process — yes, not to the extent that we do it — but think how cows are meant to give milk but not to the degree agriculture demands. The feeding process doesn’t damage the ducks’ throats.”

Animal rights activists say the process is extremely painful for the birds, even if it’s not obvious.

“Animals like ducks aren’t able to express the pain and suffering like a dog or cat or a human being,” Katz said. “They suffer in silence. The extreme overweight, enlarged liver all cause extreme discomfort on the inside. One can get a feel just from gastric indigestion just from eating a little too much. You can imagine what they feel when they’re stuffed so much that they vomit it back up and end up dying.”

Veterinarians are split. In July 2005, the American Veterinary Medical Association unanimously defeated a resolution that would have opposed the practice of force-feeding in foie gras production, citing both a lack of scientific evidence and fact that “the observations and practical experience of (AVMA House of Delegates) members indicate a minimum of adverse effects on the birds involved.”

But the AVMA wasn’t exactly endorsing foie gras, either.

“We’ve looked at the science and current production practices, and have found it is not necessary for the AVMA to take a position either for or against foie gras production at this time,” AVMA president Dr. Bonnie Beaver said in a press release.

Ginor and Tramonto are birds of a feather when they point out that if the foie gras issue were really about the birds, the animal-rights position wouldn’t be so hypocritical — they point out that the mortality rate in the $20 million foie gras industry, which consists of two New York state farmers and one in California, is less than that in the $53 billion chicken and $3 billion turkey industries, yet no high-publicity movements are winning converts to a ban on chickens or turkeys across the United States.

“These [foie gras farmers] are very small producers, small livelihood people,” Tramonto said. “But look at the mass chicken farms and huge contracted chicken farms, which are some of the worst facilities I’ve ever been in.”

And then there’s the issue of government telling diners what they can and can’t eat, foie gras
supporters said. The Chicago law may have been inspired by famous Windy City chef Charlie Trotter’s self-imposed ban on foie gras in his restaurants — but that was entirely voluntary.

“I wish I could say the people have spoken, but this was not a public vote,” Tramonto said. “This was a council vote.”

Moore responded that the foie gras ban is a prime example of good governance, and that it would be daffy to duck the issue.

“Compassion and justice aren’t finite concepts, and we have an obligation as elected officials to stand up and address cruelty in all its form. In this case torturing a small creature before you eat it is antithetical to civilized society, so we should outlaw the product of that cruelty,” he said. “I’m a meat eater. I enjoy a good steak. I have no problem with slaughtering animals to feed human beings. But that slaughter should be done humanely, not like foie gras.”

Ironically, Ginor and Tramonto say the anti-foie gras movements have turned out to be the goose that laid the golden egg for foie gras producers and restaurants.

“The popularity of foie gras is higher than it’s ever been, and we can’t explain it except for that the foie gras controversy has made it into a much more popular product,” Ginor said. “More people are now aware of what foie gras is, so when they see it on a menu they want to try it out, and say they don’t want to be told what to eat.”

At Hudson Valley Foie Gras alone, sales have risen from $12.9 million last year to $14
million this year — or, in terms of doomed ducks, from 6,000 birds sold per week in 2004 to 7,000 a week in 2005 to an estimated 7,300 a week slated for the chopping block in 2006, Ginor said.

“We’re at capacity,” he said. “We can’t produce more than that.”

Many in the Chicagoland area predict that the City of Big Shoulders’ foie gras fans — both the longtime lovers and the newly converted — will simply leave the Second City’s municipal limits to enjoy the decadent delight, heading to suburban eateries regardless of how they feel about the production process.

“We all know what hot dogs are made of, we all know what fast foods are made of, yet Americans continue to consume them,” Tramonto said.