COAST CITIES — Bertrand Hug, the owner of Mille Fleurs in Rancho Santa Fe and Bertrand at Mister A’s in San Diego, said there’s been a run on foie gras in recent months.“In the past, there were maybe only 2 or 3 orders of foie gras a night,” Hug said last week. “Lately, there’s been almost 30 orders every night.”
But foie gras, the fatty liver of a duck or goose, can no longer be found on the menus of Hug’s restaurants. As of July 1, producing or selling the French delicacy is illegal in California.
Critics of foie gras have long been against gavage, the process of force-feeding ducks with a tube to fatten their livers. At the behest of animal rights activists, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill in 2004 (with an eight-year sunset clause) outlawing foie gras if it comes from a force-fed bird.
Hug takes issue with the law. Not only as a chef, but also because of his experiences growing up on a small farm in the southwest of France, where his family made a living raising and selling animals, including ducks. In his view, gavage isn’t the unethical practice animal rights activists portray it to be.
“Extremists display old pictures and videos of the worst possible situations from obscure places,” Hug said. “That’s not what happens on the vast majority of farms in California. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Evolution designed ducks to consume large quantities of food at once, Hug argued. To illustrate his point, Hug said ducks on his family’s farm often battled to be first in position for gavage.
“Ducks are built much different from humans,” Hug said. They don’t have a gag reflex. They don’t suffer the same way humans or other animals do when it comes to force-feeding. Their esophagus is different.”
Due to “the risk of being picketed,” Hug believes some chefs have been reluctant to speak out against the ban.
Like Hug, some local chefs, however, have been vocal in their dissent. Paul McCabe, executive chef of Delicias in Rancho Santa Fe, said he’s signed every petition “he could get his hands on” to overturn the law. McCabe called foie gras “an essential ingredient,” and said the ban is like “losing a lifelong friend.”
The fine for violating the ban is $1,000. McCabe and the other chefs in this article said they would comply with the law. But they’re hopeful legislators reconsider the ban in the future.
As McCabe points out, the first foie gras ban in the U.S. didn’t stick. A law similar to California’s ban was passed in Chicago in 2006; it was later repealed in 2008.
Echoing Hug, McCabe said videos released by animal rights activists are misleading.
“It’s propaganda,” he said. “Those videos are not what happens on your average farm.”
McCabe also said he was irked by “the government’s overreach of power.”
Many critics, including chef Michael von Euw at Cavaillon’s in Santaluz, have contended that the spotlight should be put on the real injustice of factory-farmed chicken.
“A much greater number of chickens are inhumanely slaughtered every month,” Von Euw said. “It’s truly brutal and should be stopped.
“The ducks are actually treated ethically,” he added.
Brian Redzikowski, executive chef of Flavor Del Mar, agrees attention should be shifted to other food issues.
“It’s odd that people are focusing on ducks when there are serious offenses out there that need to be addressed,” Redzikowski said. “We need to look at blue fin tuna and other endangered species.”
“And then there’s our school lunch system,” Redzikowski added. “Our kids are growing up on processed food.”
According to Daniel Conway, spokesperson for the California Restaurant Association, the ban is unlikely to have a large fiscal impact on California as a whole.
Conway said Foie Gras was a niche product, only an estimated 350 gourmet restaurants in California carried the delicacy. But number may have been higher leading up to the ban, when establishments began hosting foie farewells, according to Conway.
Conway said restaurants themselves probably would not be significantly impacted by the ban. For the few establishments that carried it, the margins on foie gras were slim — a statement the chefs interviewed for this article agreed with.
Long term, the chefs, with the exception of von Euw, said the ban probably won’t hurt their businesses.
“Short term, it will negatively affect me,” von Euw said. “Long term remains to be seen.”
Conway said waiters and waitresses who work at fine-dining restaurants are more likely to feel the effects of the ban. Being an expensive delicacy, Foie gras often drove up the price of the bill, and thus the tip.
The ban had deep ramifications for one California company: Sonama Artisan Foie Gras, the state’s sole foie gras supplier. The company sold out of its Foie Gras supply and is likely to go out of business, according to Conway.