Inside the Foie Gras Wars

03/12/2015 10:14 am ET | Updated May 12, 2015

Chefs and diners are rejoicing at the news of the end of California's ban on foie gras. But the turn of events has ignited a long-worn debate: Is foie gras cruel or couture? Should we be force-feeding ducks to appease the stomachs of high-end diners? Or are there better areas to be placing our energies when it comes to animal cruelty? Here's all you need to know about the debate over foie gras.

What's the latest?

In 2012, California banned the sale of foie gras. Yet this January, Los Angeles U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson deemed the ban illegal, saying the ruling interferes with the federal laws that regulate poultry products. Wilson clarified that foie gras still cannot be produced in California, but it is now approved for import and sale in the West Coast state.

Chefs rejoiced, many immediately placing foie gras on their menus. One chef crafted a four-course foie gras tasting menu.

Does anyone else ban foie gras?

Yes. Foie gras production is banned in the United Kingdom, Israel, and Switzerland, and other European countries--such as Italy, Austria and Denmark--have banned the force feeding of ducks and geese. Chicago issued a brief ban on foie gras, which was overturned in 2008.

Is this the last law about foie gras for California?

Far from it. California Attorney General Kamala Harris is appealing the latest decision, which was loudly cheered by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Humane Society of the United States.

PETA went so far as to proclaim: "A line will be drawn in the sand outside any restaurant that goes back to serving this 'torture in a tin' and whoever crosses that line identifies with gluttony that cannot control itself even to the point of torturing animals."

Ummm ... what's wrong with foie gras?

Foie gras is produced by a process call "gavaging," where a duck generally is force-fed via a metal tube inserted into its throat to enlarge the liver. One writer calls foie gras: "the Abu Ghraib of poultry dishes," stating that, "you should not torture your food before you eat it."

Actress/animal rights activist Bridget Bardot explained her perspective on the practice to Newsweek: "This is like cramming 20kg of pasta into a human being, twice a day for two weeks. Imagine the food being forced down a tube into your stomach while you are in a cage in which you cannot move." There are stories of ducks becoming too fat to walk, some even "exploding."

That sounds atrocious. So how are people okay with this?

While protesters claim the practice harms ducks, others say 'not so fast.' A reporter for The Village Voice visited one of the largest foie gras farm in the U.S. and was surprised to find happy, healthy ducks that seemed unperturbed by the feedings. J. Kenji López-Alt makes a passionate argument for the humanity of force-feeding, noting ducks' naturally stretchy esophagi and innate ability to store lots of food and fat for migration.

Many of the horror stories surrounding foie gras production appear to come from outside the United States. U.S. foie gras farms are known to raise their ducks in luxury, with wide roaming space and doted on with care. In contrast, some Canadian and French foie gras farms notoriously cage their ducks in intensely close confines.

One more note for the supporters of foie gras: Foie gras has strong cultural heritage around the world. "As a French chef," Ludo Lefebvre told the Los Angeles Times, "it is an important ingredient and part of the legacy of French cooking." In fact, foie gras has a cultural history dating back over 4,000 years. Colorful paintings in tombs show the Egyptians practicing gavage to fatten birds. Later, the practice was adopted by the Greeks and Romans who turned foie gras into a gastronomic specialty.

Is there a way to fatten birds without gavage?

That's a great question. In Quebec, chef and organic farmer Jacques Legros fattens his ducks by following their natural eating patterns. Each fall, migrating ducks and geese gorge to fatten their livers to fuel their long flights. As such, when it begins to get cold, Legros increases the feedings and the fowl naturally over-indulge. Spanish farmer Edward Sousa practices a similar method: caring for birds in a free and natural habitat, and slaughtering right before the birds migrate when they've naturally engorged themselves.

"When I tried other foie from the market," Sousa told Perennial Plate, "industrial foie, which is delicious, of course. When I learned how they make it, it stopped being so delicious to me. I've always eaten foie without guilt, knowing that I'm consuming a product in which the animal was never treated badly. And for me that is fundamental."

Why doesn't everyone make foie gras that way?

Well, it requires lots of space and lots of time, which makes it a less lucrative form of foie gras production. Sousa loses 20 to 30 percent of his free-roaming geese to predators--not the ideal business model for many.

What else should I know?

Many argue that we should be placing our protesting energies elsewhere, pointing to the rampant atrocities weaving through the agricultural industry. Some note that cows are often treated similarly as foie gras producing ducks--fed rich diets with far more calories than they need. Others believe that we should be addressing the horrid treatment of factory-farmed chicken, of which Americans consume just over 18,500,000,000 pounds a year, instead of foie gras, of which Americans consume about 840,000 pounds each year (that's 60 pounds per person versus 0.00265 pounds per person).

"I urge you to get the most for your buck in choosing the battle that will greatly affect the majority of Americans," writes Chef Jenn Louis of Lincoln in Portland, Ore. Michael Chiarello notes: "Foie gras is a 1000th of 1 percent of consumption of anyone that consumes anything in America. So if you're going to pick something? This is a stupid place to start." Others say that no animal cruelty issue is a bad thing to address.

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