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.