California chefs in a stew over foie gras ban
A simmering row between animal rights campaigners and a handful of California's top chefs is coming to the boil, ahead of a looming ban on foie gras in the western US state.
Protestors took their message to the streets this week as a series of high-end restaurants staged events -- with menus including foie gras ice cream -- to celebrate the gastronomic delicacy, made from force-fed ducks.
"Helpless ducks are force fed, eat somewhere else instead," chanted some 30 protestors outside the Michelin two-starred "Melisse" eatery in Santa Monica.
"We were out there being the voice for the ducks, who obviously don't have a voice," Amber Coon of the Animal Protection and Rescue League told AFP, saying famously liberal California is leading the way for other states.
California's foie gras ban comes into force July 1, and a group of chefs have formed the Coalition for Human and Ethical Farming Standards (CHEFS) to combat the perception they don't care how animals are treated.
Inside the "Melisse," owner and chef Josiah Citrin offered guests at the ticket-only event a mouth-watering six-course menu including foie gras -- French for fatty liver -- in every dish, from entrees to desserts.
Prepared by a team of eight top chefs, the $200-dollar-a-head meal included Pressed Foie Gras Terrine, Duck and Foie Gras Parfait, Foie Gras Tortelloni, and Pistachio Crusted Foie Gras.
There was also Maine Lobster with Foie Gras and Salsify, and Wild King Salmon prepared with Foie Gras, Bloomsdale Spinach, French Radish and Jus au Vin Rouge, while the Roasted Liberty Farms Duck came with Artisan Foie Gras.
For dessert there was Foie Gras Butter Kuchen with Local Cherries and Foie Gras Ice Cream.
Citrin is even selling T-shirts emblazoned with "Touche Pas a Mon Foie Gras" ("Keep Your Hands Off my Foie Gras"), with a picture of a duck in a little white chef's hat.
The event aimed to "raise money and awareness about this legislation, which single-handedly attacks foie gras but fails to address the lack of humane or ethical standards and treatment for other items in our food chain," he said.
"Our guests have been extremely supportive of our restaurant," he told AFP.
"All the ingredients that I try to use, that I use in my restaurant, I really work hard to find humanely-raised animals by farmers who really care about it," Citrin added.
The CHEFS lobby group presented a petition to lawmakers in Sacramento a few weeks ago, and at least four LA-area restaurants held events on Monday to highlight the cause.
But even more directly in the firing line is California's only farm producing the delicacy, the target of animal rights protests in various countries in recent years.
Artisan Sonoma Foie Gras Farm was founded more than 20 years ago by Guillermo and Junny Gonzalez from El Salvador who studied in France's Perigord region before establishing themselves in Sonoma, north of San Francisco.
They insist their production methods adhere to the highest standards, and are not cruel -- and that their family business was closing down as a result, with the loss of jobs and tax revenues for California.
"Our farm is being forced to shut down at the end of June, and the most unfortunate fact is that science has not been given a chance to play a role in this debate," Guillermo Gonzalez told AFP.
"The larger impact however, is that a powerful special interest group with an anti-meat agenda was able to impose its morals on us all," he added.
He cited a study published in the World's Poultry Science Journal in 2004, which he said concluded that "based on the extra physiological use of a natural fattening phenomenon, foie gras has been recognized as a non-pathological and non-harmful product."
"We do not believe that foie gras farming, when done correctly, is harmful or hurtful to a duck," he added.
The anti-foie gras protestors are not convinced, and showed photos and an iPad video to passers-by and diners arriving at the Santa Monica eatery, a few blocks back from the Pacific ocean.
"We were just letting them know that they can't get away with (presenting) foie gras in a humane sustainable farming practice," said Coon.
"Most of them tried to ignore us... they obviously knew that they were going to a fundraiser by a lobbyist to repeal an animal welfare law, so that's the type of crowd you're going to get anyway," she added.
She noted that the ban was agreed eight years ago, but enforcement was put off to allow the Sonoma farm and restaurateurs to prepare. Over 100 restaurants have removed foie gras from their menus, before the upcoming deadline.
"Obviously this is not a surprise to all these chefs who are suddenly whining about it... they're all of a sudden upset about it. But this has been in the works for years," she said.
"There's really just a few, very well connected wealthy hold-outs such as 'Melisse' who are making a big fuss about this," she said.