John Burton has achieved the impossible. As the author of the 2004 bill that led to California’s foie gras ban, the crusty former state senator, now chairman of the California Democratic Party, has made eating liver cool.
Before the ban went into effect last Sunday, high-end restaurants offered last-bite foie gras fare, and frantic foodies ran to gourmet shops to hoard up the last available portions. Even in San Francisco, where menus boast sustainable fish and local veggies, chichi eateries hosted last suppers for this most politically incorrect dish. It seems Californians have had their fill of laws that tell them what they can or cannot eat.
My beef with the foie gras ban is simple: I see it as a forward assault in the war on meat eating. The animal rights lobby goes after foie gras and caged birds when its ultimate goal is to shut down the poultry industry. For some activists, animal welfare doesn’t mean humane treatment of farm animals, who, after all, are raised for slaughter; it means an end to farm animals.
“They’re using foie gras as a wedge issue,” Golden Gate Restaurant Association Executive Director Rob Black believes.
Burton tells me that was not his agenda. “This has nothing to do with meat,” he assures me. “It has to do with animal cruelty. It has to do with jamming ducks and geese with a tube down their throat.”
A lawsuit filed in federal court Monday argued that Burton’s Bird Feeding Law puts an unfair burden on chefs because the law prohibits feeding birds “more food than a typical bird of the same species would consume voluntarily.” Are producers supposed to calorie-count for ducks?
Nonsense, replies Jennifer Fearing of the Humane Society in Sacramento. The law “requires an absence of the use of force-feeding.” If producers can find a way to get the birds to engorge their livers by overeating without a tube, foie gras producers don’t have to worry about the law.
Don’t you really want to outlaw meat?
“My goal is to eliminate the cruelty associated with animals raised for food,” Fearing tells me. She mentions her group’s three-pronged approach to “humane eating” — “reduce, refine, replace.” The Burton ban, she says, “falls under the category of refinement.”
But “replace” ultimately means getting people to eliminate meat from their diets, I counter.
“We can promote that,” she answers. “That’s different from saying we want to ban it. We want to promote people making the right choices for themselves.”
Which I take to mean: The Humane Society doesn’t want to ban the sale of meat — yet.
As a representative of San Francisco restaurants, Black is proud of how local chefs have embraced Bay Area sensibilities by serving local food and using many parts of animals. “Farm to table and nose to tail,” he tells me. “That’s kind of where our chefs are.” Black supports having a third party monitor foie gras farms to make sure that “the animal is treated with dignity while alive and has a painless death.”
P.S.: “I don’t think we should have a ban, period. Prohibition’s never worked in this country.” Didn’t work with alcohol; hasn’t worked with other drugs; won’t work for foie gras.
First they came for fast food. Then they came for slow food. Sooner or later, the nanny state has a place at every table.
It is interesting to note that there were no tony last suppers at the golden arches before San Francisco banned Happy Meals and no last-gulp soirees before Ess Eff banned the sale of bottled water in City Hall. There’s a class element to this foie gras debate.
“It’s all about animal cruelty,” says Burton. “It’s not about fancy chefs and fancy people eating things that probably aren’t good for them anyway.” He also mentions “rich, fancy chefs.” (Burton barks the word “fancy” almost as much as his favorite F-word, an expletive that need not be repeated.)
That’s the class envy side. Who cares if the ban bites into the revenue of good California businesses? They’re fancy-pants.
On the other side stand the foodie elites. Where were the fancy feasters when San Francisco banned the sale of toys in Happy Meals to fight obesity? Could it be that they didn’t mind the government’s telling poor fat people what they can’t eat — because they never dreamed the diet police would go after a treat that can sell for more than $10 per ounce?