Defiant chefs fight foie gras ban; activists raid farm

February 2, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
A statewide ban on foie gras goes into effect this summer -- in no small part the result of ABC7 I-Team reports eight years ago.

It is a food fight that made headlines and spurred debate around the world, and some of the pictures are disturbing. California is the first state to ban foie gras, and both sides are gearing up before the law takes effect July 1.

"This is just over the top; rich, kind of gooey, ducky delicious flavor that you don't get out of anything else," Palio D'Asti Chef Dan Scherotter said.

Scherotter has a new menu item at his San Francisco restaurant -- "add soon to be illegal foie gras to anything" for $10. He's selling more than ever.

"And the ban is really just a sales tool at this point, so I can sell you more foie gras," Scherotter said. "You sure you don't want to try some?"

It all started eight years ago with an incident the FBI labeled an "act of domestic terrorism." The I-Team first showed you the crime scene photos after members of the Animal Liberation Front trashed a Sonoma restaurant owned by renowned chef Laurent Manrique that specialized in foie gras. The walls were spray painted and the drains were clogged with cement to symbolize force-feeding.

"Violence was used; there was an attempt to coerce them and their way of thinking and the way they live their lives, and that is terror," FBI spokesperson LaRae Quy said in September 2003.

They shot video of Manrique's wife and child through the window of their home, leaving the tape and a warning.

"A small note saying,you know, 'We are watching you. Stop or you will be stopped,'" Manrique said in September 2003.

The I-Team revealed that what appeared to be a second set of activists had been going undercover inside the state's only foie gras farm to document how force-feeding works. At least three times a day, a worker grabs each duck, shoves a long, thick metal pole down its throat and an air pump shoots up to a pound of corn into the duck. The process continues for three weeks, until the liver expands more than 10 times its normal size.

"We really didn't know that as we walked in we were going to encounter sick birds, dead birds, birds with open festering wounds," activist Sarahjane Blum said in September 2003.

The activists found dead and dying ducks and others whose livers were so engorged that they couldn't move -- couldn't defend themselves against rats that were eating them alive.

Sonoma Foie Gras' owner told the I-Team rats are just a fact of life on any farm.

"There is a lot of feed in a farming operation and that normally attracts all sorts of predators," Guillermo Gonzalez said in October 2003.

Gonzalez defended his business as being humane, saying ducks can handle a large amount of food at one time, such as a whole fish, but admitted the force-feeding, which he preferred to call "speed-feeding," would kill the ducks if he didn't send them to slaughter first.

Dan Noyes: "Would the duck die from the speed-feeding process?"
Guillermo Gonzalez: "Yes."
Dan Noyes: "Does that tell you something about the effect on the duck, then, of speed-feeding?"
Guillermo Gonzalez: "Well, imagine a human that doesn't stop eating."

The I-Team reports sparked fierce debate in Sacramento and a new law signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger saying, "A person may not force feed a bird for the purpose of enlarging the bird's liver beyond normal size, or hire another person to do so." And, "A product may not be sold in California if it is the result of forcefeeding..."

"You think a great chef could come up with something other than foie gras that would tickle the palate," then State Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, said.

Burton sponsored the foie gras bill, and he offered a compromise to get it passed -- allowing the industry eight years to come up with other, more humane techniques before the law went into effect.

"If they can come up with a way of doing it without torturing these animals, you know, God bless them," Burton said.

The I-Team reached out several times to Gonzalez to find out if he's come up with some other technique besides force-feeding, or if he will shut down his business July 1. He hasn't responded.

And, the activists have returned to Gonzalez's farm, to see if anything's changed.

"We're at Sonoma Foie Gras; this is the GPS showing the exact location," an activist said in an undercover video.

"We've seen the ducks that are very far gone, that are panting," an activist said in the undercover video. "This one here is having a lot of trouble breathing, it's panting, it's unable to walk."

They found ducks in filthy conditions, a barrel half full of the deceased ducks, and others sick and dying inside the pens.

"Nothing has changed, these birds are brutally treated and people have a right to know that," Animal Protection and Rescue League volunteer Kim Flaherty said.

"I have a hard time understanding how people who do know how foie gras is produced, how they can sit down and consciously eat it and live with themselves," APRL volunteer Dana Portnoy said.

They took four ducks -- three are doing well after dropping the weight and getting into a routine with other rescued farm animals. The fourth, nicknamed Brandon, has a hard time walking with his osteoarthritis.

"These ducks have the capacity for suffering, just like our dogs and cats that we call family members, and anyone who did this, treated dogs and cats this way, would be in jail and prosecuted for animal cruelty," Flaherty said.

Scherotter defends foie gras as a matter of choice, and he's considering defying the ban.

Dan Noyes: "Are you going to stop selling it?"
Dan Scherotter: "We have to stop selling it, but we can still give it away."
Dan Noyes: "Really? You might give it away?"
Dan Scherotter: "Yeah."

The chef believes it would be legal to offer a $20 salad -- topped with free foie gras.

Dan Noyes: "So this isn't over?"
Dan Scherotter: "No, do bans work, Dan? Did Prohibition work, is this any different than getting a medical marijuana card when you're really just a pot head?"

But, the man behind the campaign, APRL founder Bryan Pease, says most of the state's 300 restaurants that sell foie gras have already told him they will stop by July 1.

"There are a few chefs that are kind of engaging in these childish, temper tantrum-like tactics," Pease said.

And, his activists will be watching, ready to report chefs to local authorities if they break the law.

"We already have animal cruelty laws, and it's not somebody's choice to torture or be cruel to an animal and since foie gras can only be made through animal cruelty, through force feeding, it's just a logical extension to ban the product," Pease said.

Both the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office, where the foie gras farm is located, and the San Francisco Department of Public Health say they will be enforcing the ban.

In a new I-Team blog, Dan Noyes explores one claim by the foie gras industry -- that the ducks actually want to be force-fed, and they go up to the worker for it.


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