The Column: Foie gras goodbye and good riddance to a French delight

I love foie gras. And I won’t be eating it again. On July 1, California’s ban on foie gras goes into effect, making it illegal to raise, sell or serve the product within state lines. But that’s not why I’ve cut it out of my diet. I do other things that are against the law — for years I lived in Pacific Grove, where it is illegal to walk in high heels or pull down your window shades during the day, and I did both.

Foie gras is different; it requires that an animal suffer. Not just die, but suffer, and not to keep a human alive, but to produce an expensive luxury item that people enjoy but do not need.

Foie gras, which means “fatty liver,” is made through gavage, a procedure by which a duck or goose is force-fed via a tube stuck down its throat until its liver is engorged up to 10 times its normal weight.

Oakland resident Dana Portnoy, 32, organized the Bay Area foie gras campaign, which staged protests outside restaurants that served the dish. She shot undercover video at Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras, the state’s sole remaining producer, and says she’s seen the birds’ suffering firsthand.

“No duck will voluntarily gorge itself until it’s too sick to breathe, walk or fly,” she argues.

Some chefs, restaurateurs and farmers say force-feeding doesn’t hurt the bird. But there are other ways to look at the question — through a Jewish lens, for example.

Foie gras is kosher, so long as it comes from a kosher bird that is slaughtered according to kosher requirements. Primary among those is that the creature be killed humanely. Every step of the procedure — the training of the ritual slaughterer, the sharpness of the knife, the speed of the cut — is designed so it dies quickly, with as little pain as possible.

The intention is a good one. Whether one eats meat or not, embedded in the kosher perspective is the concept of not causing a creature undue suffering when there is no tangible benefit to humans. There are other Jewish laws outlining this tenet: tzar ba’al hayim, the commandment against overburdening domestic animals; the exhortation to feed one’s animals before oneself; letting animals rest on Shabbat.

Foie gras seems, to a number of prominent rabbis, to cross the line. Rashi, the great 11th-century Torah commentator, wrote that Jews would have to answer to God “for having made the beasts suffer while fattening them.” And Rashi was from France — foie gras central.

One might liken the case of foie gras to that of milk-fed veal, which enraged the public a decade ago with photos of calves kept in cages so small they couldn’t move, fed only milk so they have constant diarrhea until they are slaughtered without ever seeing daylight.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the great 20th-century Orthodox halachic authority, prohibited milk-fed veal on the grounds of this needless suffering. Rabbi Seth Mandel, who oversees kosher meat production for the Orthodox Union in North and South America, told me that he does not eat veal or foie gras — they may be kosher, but their production violates other Jewish values, he says.

Foie gras is now banned in Israel, once the world’s third-largest producer. In 2003, Israel’s High Court ruled that it violates the country’s Protection of Animals Act, which forbids animal torture or cruelty. The prohibition went into effect two years later.

Portnoy doesn’t need to look to Jewish tradition to bolster her argument, but it does give her ammunition. “Any belief system is opposed to intense suffering,” she says. “And it doesn’t go along with the kashrut prohibition on making animals suffer, either.”

So I won’t be ordering any more foie gras. Haven’t done so in years. Because it just feels wrong.

And when something feels that wrong, it usually is.

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at [email protected].

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].