Why I Spoke Up When I Heard About a Possible Foie Gras Dinner

PETA threatens litigation if “This Is Not a Pop-Up” proceeds to serve the fattened duck liver


Foie gras force feeding

Foie gras “gavage” photograph courtesy PETA

Well, I went and got myself in the middle of a kerfuffle yesterday. You see, the @LAMagFood Twitter account was tagged in a tweet from @thisisnotapopup, alerting us that they “might or might not have foie gras this weekend.” Foie gras—duck or goose liver that’s been unnaturally fattened by force-feeding—was banned in the state of California last July as you may recall.

This Is Not a Pop-Up is a self-described “culinary incubator” that helps chefs to start short or long-term culinary projects. It was co-founded by a friend and colleague of mine, Helen Springut, and is a pretty cool concept in my opinion, but I replied from my own Twitter account to let the group know they were “quacking up the wrong tree” by alerting LAMag—and by proxy, me—of the possible foie gras dinner.

While I always strive to remain objective on my posts for the Digest blog, I don’t imagine that my being a vegetarian is much of a secret to anyone who’s kind enough to read my writing with any semblance of regularity. I’m far less discreet about it on my personal blog and social media accounts, and that’s where the story started yesterday.

Helen was kind enough to send me a personal email after our Twitter exchange, explaining her beliefs and linking to an interesting read titled “Is Foie Gras Torture?”, politely acknowledging that neither of us was likely to change the other’s fundamental views on the ethics of eating meat. She told me (and later, LAist): “I personally visited a foie gras farm last year to check out what was going on before I made up my mind as to whether I would eat it, and serve it, or not. As someone in the food industry, I am immensely concerned with how the animals I eat live, and die.”

But claims that I was unfairly picking on those who eat foie gras versus chastising large industrial farms are unfounded, and avoid my real underlying criticism: that force-feeding ducks to artificially fatten their livers for human consumption is cruel. And while I’m also a Libertarian, generally resisting government regulation over commerce and the free market, the statewide foie gras ban was enacted by a law that was passed by the people of this state, and as such, should be honored. (Especially since I feel that this is not a victimless crime.)

As I wrote back to Helen yesterday:

“When then-Governor Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law that would ban foie gras (in 2004, based on a popular vote), he announced that the enforcement wouldn’t actually take effect until 2012, providing ‘seven and a half years for agricultural husbandry practices to evolve and perfect a humane way for a duck to consume grain to increase the size of its liver through natural processes. If agricultural producers are successful in this endeavor, the ban on foie gras sales and production in California will not occur.’ 

The article you sent does paint as nice a picture of a slaughterhouse as one could hope for—and I’m glad that they care enough to make these ducks’ lives more pleasant than the folks abroad do—but gavage is still an unnatural process, contrary to what happens in nature, and so, the law remains in effect.

My energy would undoubtedly be wasted in trying to stop everyone from eating meat; it’s a fool’s errand to be sure. However, there are laws against cruelty and certain inhumane acts, and I will always make a reasonable effort to call out violations thereof. (Especially when such laws are passed by a popular* vote and not just something handed down by a single politician on a bureaucratic whimsy.)”

[*Clarification (2/28): Popular vote may imply to some that this statute was passed directly by voters; it was not. California S.B. 1520 was voted on and passed by the California State Assembly and California State Senate. “Popular” was meant to convey a “majority” vote, but I now see how the terminology could be misinterpreted; I apologize for any confusion.] 

PETA has since sent a cease and desist letter to This Is Not a Pop-Up, threatening litigation should they actually serve the illegal offal. PETA’s senior litigation counsel Matthew Strugar explains: “I think the people of California have spoken, saying that consuming disease-ridden livers of ducks and geese is inherently cruel. These are sick, dying birds. There is a law on the books, and we are seeking to have it enforced. We are saying their proposed activity is illegal.”

This is a democracy, and I highly encourage you to voice your right to free speech and your right to petition the government if you don’t agree with current legislation. But animals don’t have a voice, which is why I will always speak up for them.

I still love ya, Helen, and I think what you’re doing with local chefs is great. My offer still stands should you ever change your mind: if you’d like to offer up your thoughts on the foie gras ban, I’m happy to post it here in the interest of open, intelligent discourse and discussion.

For further reading on both sides of the coin, check out:
Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards’ research library [CHEFS]
Foie Gras: Delicacy of Despair [PETA]

This Is Not a Pop-Up’s next event is taking place from Thursday, February 28 through Sunday, March 3 with chef Phillip Frankland Lee. The five-course meal is $50 per person, and while it’s unclear if foie will be making an appearance, I’m happy to report that they gladly offer a separate vegetarian menu for folks like me that forgo flesh as food altogether.

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  • http://www.libertarianinternational.org rob

    Thanks for the article.

    While they see statutes as more as guidelines, the Libertarian mother group LIO asks for dialogue on cruelty to animals, and encourages research for non-animal substitutes will come in food.

    For info on people using voluntary Libertarian tools on similar and other issues worldwide, please see the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization @ http://www.Libertarian-International.org ….

  • Jessica Smith

    Okay let’s get this straight, Springbutt who has never worked in kitchen and only in the front of house for a few months is now “in the industry” and its spokesperson regarding foie gras? And this is despite pretty much offending most of the chefs she’s worked with thus far due to her gross incompetence especially Jeremy Fox. Now even after her desperate ploy to dredge up business (after getting kicked out of the Square One space) spamming media and bloggers on twitter has backfired, and put put her in a double bind, she’s still emailing people that this really is a pop-up “may or may not serve fois gras this weekend”. So, in other words, Springbutt is a complete moron, and any chef who’d consider working with her for more than four days needs to get his or her head examined. Seriously.

    • Troll Hunter


      Shouldn’t you be busy quitting another restaurant instead of trolling comment sections?

  • Derek

    It may be a fool’s errand to get people to stop eating meat. But there’s a fair amount of ground that can be covered between demonizing foie gras farmers and throwing up one’s hands in despair at the treatment of animals in factory farms.

    Or is yours just a particularly lazy form of advocacy? Hey, at least we showed the meat and fowl producers of America that if they’re small and not well protected by lobbyists they’re potentially in trouble of being singled out while we despair at ever solving the bigger picture!

    Come on.

    • http://www.randyclemens.com Randy Clemens

      Are there bigger problems than foie gras to face, like factory farms ? Absolutely. Which is why I made the decision to become vegetarian; it’s my individual protest against meat production, and it’s constant. Every day, I make a conscious, educated choice to opt opt of a system that exists only through murder, usually tied in with cruelty and torture that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy.

      To quote Jonathan Safran Foer: “What kind of world would we create if three times a day we activated our compassion and reason as we sat down to eat, if we had the moral imagination and the pragmatic will to change our most fundamental act of consumption?”

      • Julie T.

        This whole issue over animal suffering for foie gras is incredibly exaggerated.

        First of all, Jonathan Safran Foer is a terrible writer and I don’t know why people keep quoting this hack. Also, he’s obnoxious.

        Second of all, PETA shows the worse footage they can find because it serves their agenda of having the world go meat-free. They shoot videos like they’re exposing something hidden, but in reality they were never going to be fair or balanced to begin with. They’re going to show highly edited footage of the worst farm they can find, or a small sliver of the quarantined section and claim it’s representative of the rest of the farm, like its some horror movie. They’re just terrible.

        The reality is that the ducks are treated well at responsible farms, and the feeding tubes are thinner than things they eat in the wild. You visit a good artisanal farm directly (as I have) and you use your own observations of these animals. Many go up to the feeding tubes and none show signs of suffering at artisanal farms. It’s more reliable than watching PETA videos on youtube which is how most form an opinion on this subject.

        • http://www.randyclemens.com Randy Clemens

          Julie, I’m fundamentally opposed to a system where animals are bred into captivity, so that they can be force fed and killed for our consumption. Your definition of suffering may differ from mine, but these animals deserve to live their lives in nature, where they were intended.

          As far as Mr. Foer’s credentials, I think what you mean to say is that you don’t enjoy his writing, which is entirely OK. Personally, Eating Animals was undoubtedly the most powerful book I’ve ever read, and I enjoyed his research, humor, diction, and storytelling immensely. Opinions are bound to differ, but unless you found a mountain of spelling, grammar, or sentence structure errors that I and millions of other readers somehow missed, calling him a hack and a terrible writer is a bit off base.

          And lastly, in regards to PETA and their videos: because they showcase the worst examples they find, we should ignore it? The fact is, they are finding something that’s there that shouldn’t be, and it deserves to be brought to light. I don’t doubt there are plenty of farms raising ducks as humanely as possible (up until the point where they murder them for their meat), but the reality is that there are many who aren’t. And on the flip side of the coin, I’m willing to bet there are plenty of meat companies playing the “ethically raised” game for the public while doing all sorts of other stuff behind the curtain. It’s about taking it all with a grain of salt and asking, “What does the person/company who financed this video/literature/scientific study have to gain?”

  • Justin

    Thanks, Randy. Your passion and level-headedness are admirable. The book you gave me has changed things in a big way. Peace, brother.

  • Amber

    Foie gras is not produced on a small family farm, and if the chef truly did visit Hudson Valley Foie Gras, she would have to admit that the ducks are raised and killed in an industrial setting. Thousands of ducks are housed in gigantic, reeking, windowless sheds. Everything is covered in feces and dander, and the animals are denied almost all natural behavoirs. As much as foie gras producers like to play the victim, they are factory farms, and the animal are the real victims.

  • Jessica Gerber

    Randy: You have meat recipes in your sriracha cookbook including bacon, SPAM and short ribs. Were you a vegetarian when you wrote it?

    • http://www.randyclemens.com Randy Clemens

      Indeed I was NOT a vegetarian at the time. But I’ve since come to face the reality of what eating meat means to my health and the health of our future as a planet, and I knew instantly I couldn’t be a part of that system any more. And on that note, The Veggie-Lover’s Sriracha Cookbook will be out in July! Hooray!

  • Jules

    Your article prompted me to look at Amazon again as they are still selling it, I wrote a review against one of the products on there, rating it a one for ‘I hate it’. I didn’t buy the product of course! There has recently been a campaign of letters gone to Amazon but as yet no response. What else can we do?