DOWNTOWN — For chef Raphael Lunetta, foie gras was never just a delicious delicacy. It came with the rich flavor of culture and tradition. It brought him back to his upbringing, during which he travelled frequently to his mother’s homeland of France. There he dined on the fatty liver, along with other delicacies like black truffles, mackerel and paté.
Foods like those are served in his Santa Monica restaurant, JiRaffe, and provide him, as well as customers, with a tasteful hint of memories.
However, a law banning the production and selling of foie gras in California went into effect on July 1 after animal rights activists raised concerns regarding the practice of force-feeding ducks and geese, which they consider to be inhumane. The ban has forced restaurants across the state, including Lunetta’s, to alter their menus.
In Santa Monica, a locale known for its fine dining establishments as well as its love for animals, the ban is drawing mixed reactions.
“It’s cruel to force-feed the geese so that their liver can increase,” said Santa Monican Marc Wiesenthal, who grew up in Paris and feasted on foie gras every Sunday. “But then there are farms with 6 million chickens enclosed in a place the size of a shoe box. So where do we draw the line?”
Lunetta said that the animal activists visited one farm which treated its animals poorly and it’s unfair to base the law off of a few bad apples.
“They went to a farm in financial trouble. Don’t beat up foie gras because they went to a farm that was doing a poor job,” Lunetta said.
Unlike the farm they saw, Lunetta gets his foie gras and other duck products imported from a farm in New York. Lunetta paid a visit to the farm and felt the ducks were treated well.
John Carlos Kuramoto, chef at Michael’s, doesn’t consider the force-feeding part of producing foie gras inhumane.
“Ducks are naturally used to being force-fed,” Kuramoto said. “They force-feed themselves before they even fly.”
The part of the practice he feels is cruel is when their liver has become 90 percent fat, preventing them from standing up or moving.
“That’s not nearly as cruel as factory farming, though. I think it’s an issue that people are picking on small businesses,” Kuramoto said.
He believes that by banning foie gras, the law is hurting farmers who produce it and restaurants who serve it.
Guillermo Gonzales and his family own a business that sells duck products in Sonoma, Calif. and the foie gras ban greatly affected them financially.
“Foie gras was their main focus and passion. They sold the other duck products for additional business, but they made the most off of foie gras,” Kimberly Charles, the family’s publicist, said.
Before July 1, the family cashed in as foie-gras lovers stocked up. Charles said that the Gonzales family is figuring out how to maintain their business without foie gras and are considering raising ducks just for the meat.
“The Gonzaleses raise 8,000 ducks at their peak per year,” Charles said.
Some restaurant owners and fois gras farmers are fighting back.
Hot’s Restaurant Group, which operates restaurants in Hermosa Beach and Northridge; Association Des Eleveurs de Canards et d’Oies du Quebec, a Canadian duck-farming trade organization; and New York-based producer Hudson Valley Foie Gras teamed up to file a lawsuit against Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris. Those suing to overturn the ban are being represented by Santa Monica-based lawyer Michael Tenenbaum.
The ban states that force-feeding a bird is using a process that causes it “to consume more food than a typical bird of the same species would consume voluntarily.”
However, the lawsuit claims that the language in the ban is vague because there are no guidelines as to what the proper amount of food a bird should consume is. The lawsuit also claims the ban puts a “substantial” burden on commerce by forcing restaurants who dare to serve fois gras to investigate the origin of every liver they sell and monitor manufacturers or risk facing fines as much as $1,000 per day, per sale.
On July 18, the plaintiffs’ emergency bid to freeze the ban was rejected. Their next court date is Aug. 29, Tenenbaum said.
Sean Chaney, chef at Hot’s Kitchen in Hermosa Beach, hopes that the court will rule in favor of lifting the ban.
“I’m extremely hopeful that legislators will see that there can be a win-win on both sides,” Chaney said.
Some California restaurants aren’t waiting for the court to decide whether or not to uphold the ban and are giving foie gras away for free in protest or cooking customers’ fatty livers for a nominal fee because they believe that is not prohibited under the ban.
“It’s expensive so I would never give it away for free,” Kuramoto said.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Campaigns and Action Team Director Lindsay Rajt said that ducks are treated poorly at the farm they visited, Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York. There, they saw hundreds of unhealthy ducks shoved into tiny cages.
“The people who went found ducks with bloody wings, broken wings from being jammed into cages and maggots covering their necks,” Rajt said.
At Hudson Valley Farm, she said, 500 birds were force-fed 3 times a day.
“Foie gras is one of the cruelest factory farms in existence,” Rajt said. “All of the birds are documented as sick, dead or dying.”
Now that California has banned the practice, she thinks that more places will start to do the same. In 2004, 77 percent of Americans wanted foie gras to be banned.
Other countries have set an example though, such as the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy, for the U.S.
“Thankfully we have California moving to ban foie gras and it’s a sign that we’ll have the world moving to ban this,” Rajt said.
California is the only state in the U.S. so far that prohibits selling and producing foie gras and Wiesenthal, who worked for Reese Finer Foods, a major foie gras distributor, thinks this is because animal activists are more powerful here than any other state.
Many California chefs and farms are being hurt financially by this ban and they will miss the irreplaceable flavor of this delicacy.
“Foie gras is something that is very unique,” Lunetta said. “To have it even now and then is special.”