Bay Area restaurants still selling banned foie gras

Bay Area restaurants still selling banned foie gras
May 6, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
The ABC7 News I-Team has learned that restaurants around the Bay Area are quietly serving a food that's banned in California -- foie gras, the fatty liver of a duck that's been force fed. It's their way of protesting a law that took effect last year, after the I-Team exposed the process at the state's only foie gras farm.

That farm is now closed because the law makes it illegal to force-feed ducks for foie gras in California. But, it also prohibits the sale of foie gras. So, when the tip came in that restaurants are still selling it, and apparently breaking the law, the I-Team went undercover.

The tip that came to the I-Team said, "Order the poached pear and you'll get foie gras at La Folie," one of the highest-rated restaurants in San Francisco. We sent in two producers and before they could even ask, the server made an offer.

"She said, 'Our very last special is a secret, but this is what I can tell you about it. It's a traditional French dish and one of our chef's signature dishes,'" ABC 7 News producer Ken Miguel said.

She wouldn't tell us the main ingredient in the secret chef's special, but when we placed our order, she slipped.

"She goes, 'So, three courses with the special of foie...' and then she catches herself, laughs, and says, 'The, uh, huckleberry,'" Miguel said.

When the chef's special arrived it was foie gras -- banned in California since July 1 of last year.

"I asked her, 'Why is it a secret dish?' And she said, 'Because of California law,'" Miguel said.

A series of I-Team reports 10 years ago led to California's ban on foie gras. The I-Team showed video of the force-feeding process shot by activists at the state's only foie gras farm near Stockton. At least three times a day, a worker grabbed each duck, shoved a long, thick metal pole down its throat and an air pump shot up to a pound of corn into the duck. This process continued 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 Sept. 2003.

In addition to the dead and dying ducks, activists found others whose livers were so large that they could not move or defend themselves against rats that were eating them alive.

The law made changes to the California health and safety code. It now says, "A person may not force feed a bird for the purpose of enlarging the bird's liver beyond normal size...A product may not be sold in California if it is the result of force feeding a bird for the purpose of enlarging the bird's liver beyond normal size."

And it sets a fine up to $1,000 for each violation.

La Folie's owner, Chef Roland Passot, told ABC7 News I-Team producers that he and a group of chefs are working to overturn the ban.

"The chef told me, 'I'm definitely on board with fighting it, but, you know, it's going to take a while, I think,'" Miguel said.

When the I-Team's Dan Noyes contacted Passot and told him what we found at his restaurant, he agreed to an interview but then backed out, citing a scheduling conflict. By phone, Passot said he knows he's breaking the law, but said foie gras is an important part of French culture and cuisine, and that it can be produced humanely.

There is no question that there have been changes in the industry since the I-Team's first reports. La Folie now gets its duck liver from Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York through a distributor in Nevada.

In 2003, we showed how Hudson Valley used isolation cages -- the ducks couldn't move during the weeks of force-feeding. Those cages are now gone, and workers there use a gentler process with a gravity device, instead of the California farm's old pneumatic pump.

Passot told I-Team producers how he sells Hudson Valley Foie Gras by using code words.

"The chef said, 'We choose to call it different, you know, it was the 'golden apple' when apple season. Now, it's the 'ambrosia'. Soon, it will be 'cherry jubilee', because it will be the cherry season," Miguel said.

"God forbid I should actually want cherries jubilees at this restaurant, right? I might accidentally get foie gras," Animal Legal Defense Fund lawyer John Melia said.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund is suing Chef Ken Frank of La Toque in Napa, not for selling foie gras, but for giving it away. The lawsuit says the activists sent in an undercover investigator who received foie gras on three different occasions.

"The way it worked was that we would not have received the foie gras had he not paid for this expensive meal," Melia said. "Nonetheless, it was framed and described as a gift from the chef."

Frank says this is his personal Boston tea party, that he's working a loophole in the law as a form of protest.

"We serve it to customers that purchase our most expensive menu, our least expensive menu, we serve it to customers that purchase nothing at all, that just stop by the bar to say hi and encourage my efforts," Frank said.

The activists couldn't get Napa police to cite Frank for selling foie gras. In fact, the I-Team could not find a single instance of law enforcement coming down on a restaurant throughout the state.

In San Francisco, foie gras enforcement falls to Animal Care and Control. They say it costs too much to send investigators into high-priced restaurants, with the possibility of finding a foie gras infraction. The I-Team showed them what we found at La Folie.

"And we will send an officer out there and they will be cited," SFACC Capt. Vicky Guldbech said. "These people ordered this dish, it was served, they paid for it, and that's a direct violation of the law as it's written."

The I-Team will keep track of what happens. Hundreds of restaurants stopped selling foie gras when the ban took effect, but the bottom line is that the authorities aren't doing much to enforce it. So, lawsuits from activists are the only real threat these chefs face. They are now looking for a lawmaker to carry a bill to alter the foie gras ban, to approve the sale of humanely produced foie gras.

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