June 1- 7, 2006
Eats : FoodStuck on Duck
A city councilman lobbies hard for a citywide ban on foie gras.
Pipes jammed down the esophagi of weeks-old ducks allow farmers to force-feed the birds an unnaturally high amount of corn several times per day. (The amount has been compared to a 150-pound human eating 60 pounds of food.) The result? A piece of very expensive, very caloric, very controversial and very tasty slice of liver.
Kelly says he might have sampled foie gras at one or two of the many cocktail parties he attends, but that was before he learned what the French phrase for "fatty liver" really entails. Now, he vows never to eat it again and says business owners who sell it should find another way to make a living. Ah, the power of a seat on City Council.
"I think there are probably certain high-scale restaurant owners that may have an issue with it, but this is only one small, small, small part of their menu," Kelly says.
Kelly introduced a bill May 25 to ban sales of foie gras in Philadelphia and awaits approval from the House and Human Services committees before the bill moves to the floor of City Council. The ban could go into effect as early as fall. The councilman says it would not only do ducks justice, but it will improve indulgers' health by making a splurge impossible.
"Who is this crazy person? How did he get this stupid idea?" asks Joel Assouline, owner of Assouline & Ting, a Philadelphia wholesaler that distributes to hundreds of U.S. restaurants. Assouline earned a reputation as one of the most influential people in the foie gras industry when he introduced a flash-frozen form of the French product to U.S. buyers. "I think if a councilman wants to do something about Philadelphia, he should try to lower the crime rate in Philadelphia and worry about problems of a big city, rather than worry about this," he says. "It makes absolutely no sense."
Councilmen, farmers and chefs sharing his sentiment have used Chicago Alderman Joe Moore's ban as one-liner material about wasted political resources and time. "No, I don't have better things to do," responds Kelly. "We have to protect all members of our family, including ones that have four legs. Or ducks with two."
Animal rights activists exaggerate the amount of food ducks are force-fed, says Bryan Scott Oedzes, the animal agriculture lobbyist retained by producers, processors and distributors to organize the North American Foie Gras Association (NAFGA) and Chicago's Chefs for Choice. If anything, ducks live better lives than most farm animals because they are allowed free range for most of their lives, Oedzes says.
"The foie gras duck lives 90 percent of its life in the Ritz-Carlton of the animal agriculture world and 10 percent in the Best Western," he says. "The average boiler chicken seems to live its whole life in a Super 8. What's better?"
GourmetCruelty.com investigated foie gras farms and found evidence of abject suffering, she says.
"They found some with holes in their necks from pipe injuries," says PETA spokesperson Reannon Peterson. "They found ducks with bloody beaks who had their wings twisted together and jammed into their wired cages. They are so intensely confined, in order to try and get loose they practically tear off their limbs. At a different farm, birds were found dangling from wires as blood spilled off their bodies onto ducks under them."
Of course, truths regarding foie gras farm practices and whether ducks experience stress depend on the expert, which is why Oedzes (who is also vice president at Hudson Valley Veal and is on the board of directors of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association) and the legal team hired by NAFGA will approach the case from a strictly legal angle. To win a repeal, he says, they must prove a certain degree of harm to the foie gras industry and the ban's infringement on the Interstate Commerce Clause, which gives the federal government the right to regulate commerce among states. If they are successful, the government could repeal the ban or call for a temporary restraining order, which would immediately nullify all U.S. bans, including Kelly's in Philadelphia.
"I don't know why some activists decide to push this issue all the way. It's like extremism, which is not good in any topic," Assouline says. "[The activists] are people who just are brainwashed and they don't understand how the real world works and it's like this is the natural food chain."
Restaurant owner Susanna Foo took foie gras off her Walnut Street restaurant's menu, but thinks Kelly's ban seems a bit "communist" for the United States.
"You think the duck is so sad, but how about chickens you put in a cage and you raise two weeks and you just kill them and put them on the market?" she asks. "You can talk and talk and talk, and there's no end."
Pennsylvania Restaurant Association CEO Pat Conway says it's still too early to start forming groups, but the association will take part in anti-ban efforts if need be. The government should not take away customers' right to choose what they order, Conway says.
More than 1,400 Philadelphians supportive of the ban have signed the "Get foie gras out of Philly" petition posted on thepetitionsite.com. Supporters and opponents of the bill can leave their comments on Kelly's newly created MySpace page at myspace.com/councilmankelly.