Sunday, August 20, 2006

The fight is on for foie gras in Chicago

In April of this year, the Chicago City Council voted to ban the sale of foie gras within the city limits. One wonders that the City Council didn't have more pressing issues to think about, but "The fact that there are these other issues that are crying out for attention doesn't mean that we can't take a bit of time and address this issue as well," said Alderman Joe Moore, sponsor of the ordinance.

The ban was originally set to go into effect in June, but the wording of the ordinance was so poor that it needed to be rewritten to avoid numerous loopholes. The Whereas section of the ordinance references the results of a (rather biased) Zogby poll and outspoken foie gras adversary and Chicago chef Charlie Trotter among its justifications. But of course, the primary reason cited for the ban is to prevent the unethical treatment of animals.

Foie gras, for those who may be unfamiliar, is the fattened liver of a duck or goose. It is produced by a period of forced feeding prior to slaughter. The forced feeding is, of course, at the heart of the controversy. Advocotes say that geese and ducks in the wild naturally will gorge themselves on food prior to migration periods, that the esophagus of the goose or duck is tough to enable it to do things like swallow entire fish, and that birds on foie gras farms can be observed happily waddling to the trough to be force fed. Here's a link to the Sonoma Foie Gras page describing their foie gras production process.

Opponents, on the other hand, claim that foie gras birds suffer high rates of pre-slaugher mortality because of ruptured esophaguses and suffocation and that birds have literally exploded from the volume of force food.

I eat foie gras and enjoy it. In fact, it makes my eyes glaze over and I swoon a little. It's incredibly rich and unctuous and utterly decadent. I've read about the major foie gras producers in the US, and am comfortable with their animal husbandry practices. Especially in comparison to the way most meat is raised in the United States, through factory farming.

I've known for some time that factory farming was objectionable, but it wasn't until I read Peter Kaminski's Pig Perfect that I understood what is really involved, and became even more committed to buying my meat from the most humane suppliers I can find. But I understand that in the end, they are still raising and slaughtering animals for me to eat. And as an omnivore near the top of the food chain, I'm okay with that.

So my first reaction to hearing the news from Chicago was to think "if they're so concerned about animal cruelty, why aren't they looking in the issues around factory farming?" Ten billion chickens every year are raised in factory farms every year, compared to some much smaller number of ducks being raised for foie gras. If you want to make a difference in the lives of poultry, why not target the big picture?

But of course, taking away people's 99 cent chicken nuggets would generate a lot more opposition than banning a food that most people have never eaten. Although from that perspective, I have to give the Chicago City Council credit for their recent proposal to ban the use of trans-fats - if they're going to try to control what city residents eat, that's certainly a ban that would have more far reaching effects.

The real issue, expressed really well in this NY Times article, is why the City is so driven to "manage residents lives in mundane ways." Whatever happened to personal responsibility and personal choice? I'm making an educated choice to eat foie gras - how many people can say that about their factory farmed bacon?

Consumers and chefs in Chicago and around the country have protested or spoken out in various ways. There's a petition. Several chefs in Chicago joined together for a "Foie Gras Dinner and Freedom of Choice Fundraiser." Chef Graham Elliot Bowles at The Avenues featured a tasting menu with foie gras in every course. And now, there's a lawsuit.

Next week, the Illinois Restaurant Association, an ad-hoc group known as "Chicago Chefs for Choice" and the major foie gras producers that make up the newly formed Artisan Farmers Association will join forces to challenge a foie gras ban poised to take effect next Wednesday.

"The argument is that this [ban] violates interstate commerce and the city is usurping the federal government's power by banning a product that's federally approved for shipment across state lines," said a source familiar with the lawsuit.


"What's at stake is the ability of adults to order legal products, the production of which has been overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, when they choose to dine out in Chicago," said Chris Robling, a spokesman for the Artisan Farmers Association.
I'm glad there's an organized and active opposition to the ban. The Chicago Council decision has opened the way for other localities to enact similar bans - Philadelphia has introduced similar legislation. A successful lawsuit against the ban would help to shut down similiar "copycats." Legislation like this isn't good for restaurants and it isn't good for diners.

Lots of other people have written great stuff on this issue. Here's a couple of links, and searching "Chicago Foie Gras Ban" on Technorati generates pages and pages.
eGullet thread
The Slippery Slope of Foie Gras

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