California Foie Gras Fans Seek to Beat Curb as Ban Begins

California's Foie Gras Lovers Seek to Duck Curbs on Delicacy
A duck foie gras lobe, the delicacy known by its French name, is arranged for a photo at the Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco. Foie gras officially goes off the menu in California on July 1. Photographer: Kevin Thrash/Bloomberg

Foie-gras lovers from Los Angeles to San Francisco are flocking to restaurants this week to savor the delicacy before a state ban takes effect July 1. The taste may not be their last.

Producing or selling the engorged livers of force-fed ducks and geese will be prohibited under the law. Some of those responsible for enforcing it, however, have little interest in pursuing chefs who, say, offer it free, perhaps in conjunction with pricey pieces of toast.

“This is not a crime that would be investigated by the LAPD or likely any other municipal police department,” Officer Karen Rayner, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Police Department, said in an e-mail.

The law pits California chefs and foie gras makers against animal-rights advocates who see cruelty in fattening the birds by overfeeding them through a tube to produce the fatty liver. Suppliers say the process doesn’t hurt the animals, whose digestive tracts aren’t comparable to humans.

Chefs who defy the ban are subject to a $1,000 citation under legislation passed in 2004. Implementation was delayed to give the food industry time to adjust.

“I’m not aware of any plans for us to enforce it,” Sergeant Michael Andraychak, a San Francisco Police Department spokesman, said in an interview.

Kathleen Brown, deputy director of the San Francisco Department of Animal Care and Control, which is responsible for animal welfare, said her agency won’t issue citations to chefs who give away foie gras as a sample or a bonus to a dish, or who prepare the meat brought in by customers who buy it outside California.

‘Not Citing’

“If it’s given away, we’re not citing under this law,” Brown said in a telephone interview. “We may get complaints about that and we may conduct an investigation as to where the foie gras came from. If we found out it came from outside California, then we wouldn’t cite.”

Ludo Lefebvre, the French-born chef and owner of LudoBites, a pop-up, or temporary, restaurant in Los Angeles, said he planned to continue serving foie gras after July 1, as a free item on a chef’s menu.

“If I don’t charge for it, it’s not a crime,” Lefebvre said in a telephone interview. “And so I’m going to do it.”

Animal-rights advocates said they’ll go after cooks who continue serving the food.

“We’re going to come down like a hammer on any chef or restaurant that wants to continue serving this very cruel product,” Bryan Pease, co-founder of the Animal Protection and Rescue League in San Diego, said in a telephone interview. “We’re going to make life very difficult for them.”

Free Side

Serving the liver as a free side to a dish would still be an illegal sale because patrons understand they will receive foie gras with their order, Pease said.

“If we find somebody still serving that product, the gloves are going to come off and we’ll use every legal means available to shut that place down, including lawsuits, protests and boycotts,” Pease said. “There’s just no reason to allow restaurants to do business in California that flout the law and torture animals for a table treat.”

Laurel Pine, owner of Mirepoix USA, an online foie gras retailer, said she moved her business to Reno, Nevada, from California in October to avoid closing shop and to capitalize on the shifting market. Reno is close to the California border, near Lake Tahoe.

Border Sales

“I am setting up a retail location where my customers can come and buy foie gras and bring it back to California if they choose to do so,” Pine said in a telephone interview. “The law is not against possessing it. It’s against producing it or selling it in California.”

She said her best-selling product is a foie gras in the form of individually wrapped slices that have a two-year shelf life if frozen.

“I think people are loading up their freezer,” Pine said.

After the ban takes effect, customers can also have their foie gras purchased in Nevada and taken by courier to a California restaurant for a chef to prepare for them, she said.

“It’s a legal way that, if people want to continue to enjoy the product, they can,” Pine said.

Marcus Henley, operations manager at Ferndale, New York-based Hudson Valley Foie Gras, which sells $2 million of the liver to California annually, said it’s been selling out.

“We will be happy to sell foie gras to Nevada or any other state,” he said in an e-mail. “I have heard about the courier issue. If California citizens organize that, it will be wonderful.”

‘Foie-kage Fee’

Mark Pastore, owner of Incanto, a San Francisco restaurant, said he’s open to charging a “foie-kage fee,” akin to corkage, to prepare the meat purchased in another state.

“Any law like this is bound to be full of loopholes,” Pastore said in a telephone interview. “There’s always going to be ways around something, which is part of the reason that passing laws like this is futile.”

Chef Roland Passot, owner of Michelin-rated San Francisco restaurant La Folie, said he’d cook foie gras brought in by a customer.

“We know that prohibition never works and it never will,” Passot said in a telephone interview. “The state has a $16 billion deficit. Here we’re going to create a foie gras police so we can look for chefs who are serving foie gras? This is laughable.”

The French-born Passot said his patrons were ordering foie gras at three times the usual rate. He’s serving a six-course foie gras dinner every night this week for $175 per person.

Closing Business

At Sonoma Foie Gras, based in Farmington, California, owner Guillermo Gonzalez said he plans to close his business this month.

“The effect of the ban is the closing of a successful family business that for over 25 years has provided the highest quality duck products with utmost respect to animal husbandry practices,” Gonzalez said in an e-mailed response to questions.

“For the time being, we are going to reflect and consider our next steps,” Gonzalez said. “If foie gras falls, it will set a dangerous precedent for animal agriculture and beyond. It will show that a powerful minority has the ability to impose its beliefs on us all.”

The California law had postponed enforcement of the ban for almost eight years to allow producers to find an alternative to force-feeding. Chicago, the first city to outlaw foie gras in 2006, lifted its ban in 2008 at the behest of then-Mayor Richard Daley.

Chefs this year lobbied the California Legislature to repeal the ban.

Senator Lois Wolk, a Davis Democrat, said she’d be open to sponsoring legislation to change the foie gras law.

“I have told the chefs and producers of foie gras that if a proposal came forward to amend the California law, not repeal it, but amend it to create an acceptable humane standard for the production of this agricultural product, I would consider carrying the legislation next year,” Wolk said in a statement.

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