Chefs seek to undo foie gras ban

In 2004, the California Legislature gave foie gras producers seven years to find a humane way to create the duck liver delicacy without forcing food down the birds’ throats.

With the law set to take effect the July 1, some of the state’s top chefs on Monday were attempting to overturn it. A hundred have signed a petition saying they want to keep the sale of foie gras legal and establish new regulations for raising the birds. They are visiting with their representatives trying to accomplish an uphill task: finding someone to sponsor a bill to repeal it in time.

Their 11th-hour attempt has ruffled the feathers of the ban’s original sponsor.

“I gave them seven years – seven years, and I shouldn’t have – and now they’re all going, ‘Oh my God, I just don’t know how we’re going to survive,’” said former president pro tem of the state Senate, John Burton, now the state Democratic Party chairman. “I’m so infuriated with the bad faith going on here that words cannot describe it.”

Burton’s bill banned the “inhumane practice” of force-feeding ducks and geese as well as the sale of foie gras in California. Burton initially agreed to delay implementation of the bill because the state’s sole producer had asked for time to find a more humane way to engorge the birds’ livers to keep the dish on menus.

“It’s been a rough couple of years for restaurants because of the economy,” said Nathan Ballard, spokesman for the group who delivered the petition to the office of Assembly Speaker John Perez on Monday. “This is one more blow to the restaurant industry in California. Chefs don’t want to see it go into effect.”

Perez’ office had no comment about the issue.

Foie gras, French for “fat liver,” is created by the funnel-forced ingestion of large amounts of feed into the duck’s esophagus. Eventually the liver grows to more than 10 times its normal size.

The chefs who opposed the ban – most from the San Francisco Bay Area – also are using an animal-welfare argument. Calling themselves the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards, or CHEFS, they are asking the state to set standards for foie gras production that would include audits by animal welfare experts, cage-free birds, hand feeding by methods that don’t impair breathing, and limits on fattening. They say that if foie gras is outlawed, people will buy it on the black market.

A message and email left with Sonoma Foie Gras, the state’s only producer, was not immediately answered. The company’s website says the ducks live for two months freely roaming a walnut orchard until they are placed in a 33-square-foot pen with a dozen other birds for fattening.