California foie gras ban ends farmer's 'American dream'
Guillermo Gonzalez's foie gras production business is closing down — the only one of its kind in California. He's closing in response to a looming state ban on the production of the fatty liver made by force feeding ducks and geese.
Fri, Jun 15 2012 at 5:05 AM
FOIE GRAS: Gonzalez said critics of foie gras often simply have misconceptions about the force-feeding process — involving inserting a funnel into ducks' throats, which he insists is not cruel. (Photo: Kimihiro Hoshino/AFP)
A looming foie gras ban in California is pitting animal rights protesters against high-end chefs. Squeezed in the middle is Guillermo Gonzalez, lamenting the end of his "American dream."
Gonzalez, the only foie gras producer in the famously liberal state, claims ignorant activists and "special interests" are unfairly throttling the livelihood he has built since arriving from El Salvador in 1986.
"I feel that a big injustice has been committed. I feel that emotion and intimidation have prevailed over reason and science. But this is bigger than us, so I just have to comply," he told AFP.
"It is in a way an offense to honest work, and I don't lose the hope that reason will prevail," added the 60-year-old, packing up his business before the July 1 deadline.
Gonzalez founded Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras 26 years ago, after leaving his homeland and spending a year in France's southwestern Perigord region to learn the traditional culinary craft from the Gallic masters.
Based in the bucolic town of Sonoma, a few miles from the world-renowned Napa Valley wine-growing region north of San Francisco, the firm is one of only a handful of foie gras producers in the United States.
But its problems began in 2003 when trespassers began stealing ducks from the family's farm, and vandals targeted the homes of two of his partners in a restaurant in downtown Sonoma, causing more than $50,000 in damage.
Then in 2004, Californian lawmakers passed a law to outlaw production and sale of foie gras — fatty liver, made by force feeding ducks and geese — although they gave him seven years to comply.
The following year was the firm's peak, when it processed 80,000 ducks at its farm, set in walnut orchards near Farmington, east of San Francisco. Since then it has processed an average 50,000 a year.
Gonzalez, who testified on animal welfare to a U.S. House Agriculture subcommittee in 2007, said he has always hoped California would reconsider the ban — hopes fueled by Chicago's 2008 repeal of a city ban approved in 2006.
In the run-up to the California ban, some of the Golden State's top chefs including Thomas Keller, the only U.S. chef with two three Michelin-starred restaurants, redoubled efforts to persuade lawmakers to overturn the ban.
Calling themselves the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards, they have staged a series of foie gras-rich evenings to raise money for the cause.
But John Burton, the former California legislator who drafted the law, dismissed their calls, likening the tradition of foie gras to waterboarding and female genital mutilation.
"They've had all this time to figure it out and come up with a more humane way," he lamented to the San Francisco Chronicle in April.
"I'd like to sit all 100 of them down and have duck and goose fat — better yet, dry oatmeal — shoved down their throats over and over and over again," he added.
Animal rights campaigners have, when they got wind of such events, been quick to stage protests outside restaurants, chanting slogans like "Helpless ducks are force fed, eat somewhere else instead."
But Mark Berkner, owner and chef at "Taste" in Plymouth, 40 minutes east of Sacramento where the bill was passed, said lawmakers should not be allowed to force their ethical choices on his restaurant's customers.
"We want to have choices here," he told AFP at one of the support-foie gras events, questioning the precedent it sets. "We don't want to be told down the road you can't serve chicken, you can't serve pork, you can't serve beef."
Back on his near-empty farm, Gonzalez said critics of foie gras often simply have misconceptions about the force-feeding process — involving inserting a funnel into ducks' throats — which he insists is not cruel.
"The big problem is the lack of education for the general public," he said, stressing the personal relationship between feeder and ducks, and the physiognomy which lets ducks hold and digest large amounts of food.
The process can harm them, if done wrongly, he said — but compared it to a human baby being fed with milk.
"Even a mother of a baby, of a human being, .. if she doesn't have the skill to give her the bottle can harm the baby. It's as simple as that," he said. "You have to have the skill."
He said the fight to try to keep his business running, including defending lawsuits, has cost him $1.6 million over the last decade. "We essentially lost our retirement fund," he said.
But sitting next to his wife Junny — who also turned 60 this year and is known locally as "The Foie Gras Lady" — he insisted he is not angry.
"No, I don't feel angry. I think anger is a very negative feeling that only leads to bad results. I think that sadness and resignation is one that leads to a more constructive positive future," he said.
Gonzalez is considering various business options, including rearing a particular type of French duck commercially, although he will take some time to decide what to do next.
Reflecting on his American dream, he added: "I believe that what we have done as immigrants is what is expected of any immigrant, which is to work hard, create jobs, pay taxes, incorporate in society, do social service ..."
"The experience I'm feeling right now is that it's being by force taken away from us."
Copyright 2012 AFP Global Edition