A gourmet dish many Americans haven't tasted or can't even pronounce has sparked controversy between animal-rights activists and restaurants.
Foie gras, pronounced fwah grawh (French for "fatty liver"), is the liver of ducks or geese. In France, where roughly 80 percent of the foie gras is produced, it's considered a delicacy. In America, it's become the subject of protests, lawsuits, bans, vandalism and bickering among celebrity chefs.
The issue has come to roost in Utah, where a group called Showing Animals Respect & Kindness (SHARK) plans to picket several Park City restaurants during the Sundance Film Festival. The group has campaigned for the past six months to get it off Utah menus, saying the force-feeding method called gavage used to fatten the duck's liver is inhumane.
During the last few weeks of the duck's life, a metal tube is inserted down the duck's throat two or three times a day, and corn is poured directly into the bird's esophagus. SHARK and other animal rights groups say this can cause lacerations or organ rupture, the ducks become so obese they can't move, and the resulting fatty liver is diseased and shouldn't be eaten."Sundance would be one of the better times to protest because there's a lot of people available to see it," said Colleen Hatfield, SHARK's regional director, in a telephone interview from her home in Taylorsville.
Protests and pressure
The group's last major target was The Metropolitan in downtown Salt Lake City, where SHARK members protested weekly for several months, until New Year's Eve, when owner Karen Olson took foie gras off the menu.
"I was afraid someone would get hurt," she said. "Things had escalated from people going around with signs and banners, to vandalism and criminal behavior. At some point, when my building is getting destroyed, I have to make the call."
Police reports confirm that during the past few months, red paint was thrown on the restaurant and the gas main was shut off. Near midnight on Christmas Eve, the large front picture window was shattered.
Hatfield said her group wasn't involved in the vandalism. "If I knew who did that I would turn them into the police. Those involved with this campaign are totally nonviolent people."
In the past few years, similar vandalism has occurred at restaurants serving foie gras in Austin, Texas; Sonoma, Calif.; Pittsburgh; Chicago; and New York City. In Philadelphia, a number of chefs pledged to stop serving it after animal-rights activists protested at both their restaurants and homes.
When contacted by the Deseret Morning News, several Salt Lake and Park City chefs declined to be interviewed about foie gras for fear of being targeted by animal-rights groups even though it was already off their menus.
But Zane Holmquist said he won't bow to protest pressure. At the Stein Eriksen Lodge in Park City he sells "hundreds of pounds" of foie gras, he said in a telephone interview, calling it "one of the tastiest things in the world."
"They can protest all they want, and I'll be happy to chat with them about it," he said. "I do a lot of work with charities, and I find it horrible that people waste their energy worrying about what other people eat, when there are children going hungry in our state. If a restaurant serves something you don't like, don't go there or don't order it. I've been to the foie gras farm, and the geese are fine about it. They don't mind getting fat."
Jean Louis Montecot said his Park City restaurant, Jean Louis, hasn't yet been picketed, but he witnessed similar demonstrations as a chef in New York City.
"I think it's become a target because it's expensive and rare, and you are attacking rich people," he said in a telephone interview. "Why don't they protest the chickens that are raised stacked on top of each other? I think people have a misconception about how it is farmed. I grew up in France, and I know how it's farmed there. I've been in America 21 years, and they have good laws in this country. If they say it's illegal, I won't serve it. But it's not illegal."
Because it's so rich-tasting and expensive, foie gras is usually offered as an appetizer in small portions. Montecot said it costs his Park City restaurant $46 a pound. "So I have to charge $25 per portion," he said. "I'm not making a lot of money on it. I make more money on a breast of chicken."
Last July, SHARK sent letters to Utah restaurants known to serve foie gras and asked that they stop, along with a DVD called "Delicacy of Despair: Behind Closed Doors of the Foie Gras Industry." Several restaurants agreed with the request. Karen Olson said she didn't receive the SHARK mailing.
The group held weekly demonstrations in front of the Metropolitan, showing the video, passing out leaflets and chanting. According to a SHARK press release, many people were motivated to contact the restaurant and ask that the item be discontinued.
But Olson said on nights the group protested, foie gras sales actually went up. "They created such a hubbub that the guests wanted to try it to see what the fuss was all about, or they found the protesters obnoxious so they ordered it to spite them."
The SHARK mailing prompted the Bill White Restaurant Group (owner of Wahso, Grappa, Ghidotti, Chimayo and Windy Ridge Cafe in Park City) to pull foie grass off its menu, said Jeff Jones, the company's director of strategic planning. Later, during an annual recruiting trip to the Culinary Institute of America, 10 chefs drove to the Hudson Valley Foie Gras farm in New York to inspect it for themselves.As to what they learned from the trip, Jones offered only an official statement that the restaurant group is dedicated to researching product facilities and inspecting the treatment of animals and cleanliness, concluding, "We strongly encourage the same from anyone interested in gaining knowledge about food and its origin."
Farming or cruelty?
Olson, Holmquist and Montecot brought up the same underlying fact: All meat involves killing animals.
"It's not that I don't love ducks, but I don't understand what the cut-off point is," Olson said. "If we stop serving duck liver, should we also stop serving duck? Then what about the chicken and the beef? What about farm-raised fish? They are all harvested for consumption."
Hatfield says the critical point is that animals would be humanely raised and painlessly killed, although as a vegetarian she thinks people would be better off not eating so many animals.
"Foie gras is an especially cruel type of food, and it's so unnecessary," she said. "There are hundreds of other things people can eat."
The "Delicacy of Despair" video shows ducks confined in cages, with sores and mangy feathers, and a rat biting a duck that is too obese to get away. Hatfield said the footage was shot by activists who went undercover and got jobs at Sonoma Foie Gras in California and at Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York, two of the three major suppliers of foie gras in the United States.
When asked in a telephone interview about the "Delicacy of Despair" footage, Hudson Valley Foie Gras operations manager Marcus Henley said their ducks aren't caged and that they have room to move around in large, heated buildings. He said that ducks (and geese) have tough lining in their throats and esophagi, so having a tube put down their throats isn't as painful as it looks. He also said that in the wild, ducks naturally overfeed and fatten their livers for energy prior to migration, and a fatty liver isn't diseased.
"We can't attest to what goes on in other farms, but we have an open-door policy so that journalists and chefs can come and see for themselves that our animals are cared for and this isn't detrimental to animal welfare," he said. "I've worked here six years, and I've seen three or four rats in all that time. We have a rodent-control program."
TV chef Anthony Bourdain, an outspoken defender of foie gras, visited the farm in a December segment of his show "No Reservations" on the the Travel Channel. "I happen to think foie gras is one of the most delicious things on Earth, and one of the 10 most important flavors in gastronomy," he told viewers.
The program showed ducks freely waddling around, seemingly unperturbed during the feeding process. A veterinarian on the show said that researchers found the farm's ducks to be less stressed than ducks living in the wild.
But after three visits to foie gras farms in 2005, Chicago chef Charlie Trotter decided to pull foie gras from his acclaimed restaurant, Charlie Trotter's, sparking controversy.
In a Chicago Tribune story, rival chef Rick Tramonto called Trotter's decision "hypocritical," and Trotter retorted, "Oh, OK, maybe we ought to have Rick's liver for a little treat. It's certainly fat enough."
Citing Trotter as its inspiration, Chicago's City Council passed a city-wide ban on foie gras in 2006, prompting a backlash campaign by Chicago Chef For Choice (chicagochefsforchoice.com), and a lawsuit by the Illinois Restaurant Association. Mayor Richard Daley called it "the silliest law" and has sought for a repeal. Meanwhile, the state of California voted to ban the production of foie gras by 2012, putting Sonoma Foie Gras, the state's sole producer, out of business.Last fall, Philadelphia Chefs for Choice was formed to fight a proposed ban in their city, as well as the animal rights protests outside their restaurants and homes. The group's mission statement concluded, "In the city of Philadelphia, the birthplace of American liberty, we want to keep the right to serve foie gras."
Read more about the foie-gras issue:
Legal Foie Gras (legalfoiegras.blogspot.com)
Artisan Foie Gras (artisanfoiegras.com)
Stop Force Feeding (banfoiegras.org)The Truth About Foie Gras (GourmetCruelty.com)