A California state law banning the sale of foie gras goes into effect on Sunday but it remains unclear whether restaurant goers will be able to find the fattened liver of duck or geese on menus next week.
Sales of foie gras have been booming for weeks leading up to the ban, with restaurants across the state serving pricey multicourse foie gras dinners.
Earlier in the week, reports indicated that enforcement of the ban might be somewhat lax. Some chefs said they were planning to look for loopholes to continue to serve the product, such as offering foie gras for free — along with high-priced accoutrements.
Signed in 2004, the law — which has won the support of chefs like Wolfgang Puck — will make it illegal to sell or produce products in California made from force-fed ducks or geese, but it will not be illegal to consume, possess or transport foie gras.
At issue is whether foie gras can be produced humanely, a debate that continues to rage throughout the food world.
On Friday, however, suppliers elsewhere across the country were giving mixed predictions about what might happen after July 1, saying it may take someone getting cited with the $1,000-per-day fine to know exactly how the law will be enforced.
“The law is very confusing. We’ve spoken to a number of attorneys and we get a different answer every time,” said Marcus Henley, operations manager for Hudson Valley Foie Gras, a Ferndale, N.Y.-based producer.
Henley said the company plans to hold off on any sales to California residents or restaurants on Sunday and Monday. "After that, we’ll see what happens,” he said.
Henley said it is not clear whether a California buyer can legally order the product online from the New York producer.
“We’re being very cautious at first because I think that’s a question that could be answered either way, and we want to see how it’s enforced,” said Henley. “I expect it to be quite a chaotic week.”
Ariane Daguin, founder of foie gras purveyor D’Artagnan, based in Newark, N.J., said her lawyers believe it will be legal for customers to order foie gras from her company online. “It’s business as usual for us,” she said.
Whether or not loopholes exist for California restaurants to serve the product remains to be seen.
“We’re going to see right away,” said Daguin. “It really depends which lawyer you talk to.”
Foie gras was briefly banned in Chicago in 2006, and later the ban was lifted. During that period, however, restaurants “found creative ways to serve foie gras without selling it,” Daguin said.
Restaurateur Mark Pastore of Incanto in San Francisco, however, said he plans to remove foie gras from the menu after June 30. “It will be off the menu for now,” he said. “We’ll wait and see how it’s enforced.”
Pastore had been quoted in some reports as being open to allowing guests to bring their own foie gras, and charging a “foie-kage,” akin to a wine corkage. On Friday, however, Pastore said, “I have no plans to do that.”
Pastore predicted that the battle is not over, and that supporters of foie gras will continue to pursue legislative and legal remedies to get clarity about what might constitute humane practices for producing the high-end ingredient. Meanwhile, he added, restaurants may be subject to the “vigilante” enforcement by activists.
Ken Takayama,de cuisine at Mélisse in Santa Monica, Calif., said his staff has already received threatening phone calls and emails. The high-end restaurant has played host to a number of foie gras dinners and events over the past few months, some of which have attracted protesters outside. “These people are pretty extreme,” the chef said.
Meanwhile, consumers have clamored for foie gras the same way Michael Jackson fans might have scrambled for tickets to his last concert, he said. Next week, however, Takayama said Mélisse’s menu would be foie gras-free — for now.
“I’m sure other people will find a way to serve it,” he said. “For me, personally, if you have to go that far to serve foie gras to save your restaurant, what does that say about the rest of your menu? Is foie gras really that important?”
David Féau, executive chef at The Royce in the Langham Hotel in Pasadena, Calif., said foie gras dishes and specialty dinners have done very well this year.
For the last days leading up to the ban, The Royce has offered foie gras 30 different ways over three days. Popular dishes have included seared foie gras with torched leek ash and rhubarb gelée; foie gras croquembouche puff pastries; and foie gras fondue with tarragon-printed pasta and crimini mushrooms in a dry-aged beef bouillon. The dishes started at $20.
Next week, however, Féau said foie gras would be off the menu – along with the rest of the duck.
“The whole point of the ‘foie gras battle’ is to support sustainable farming practices and ‘the whole duck,’” he wrote in an email. “If we can’t serve the liver then we can’t serve duck. I will serve calf liver and animals that are not corn-fed.”
California’s only foie gras producer, Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras, is reportedly closing up shop, leaving about 35 people without jobs or with greatly reduced hours.
Laurel Pine, owner of foie gras retailer Mirepoix USA, moved her business out of California to Nevada in anticipation of the ban. Pine said Friday her company’s foie gras sales were nearly six times what is typical for June and the highest in her eight years in business. On Friday, California buyers were paying a hefty $55 shipping fee to ensure it arrived before the ban goes into effect on Sunday.
Mirepoix is looking into opening a retail location near the California border in Reno, Nev., and in Las Vegas, where she said Californians can buy the product legally — though she said it’s not clear whether restaurant operators could take advantage of such retail locations. “Nobody really knows what’s going to be okay until the violations start happening,” she said.
Daguin of D’Artagnan said she hoped the ban would light a fire under restaurant operators who want to serve foie gras. “I hope they will show strong interest and motivation to get rid of that ban,” she said.