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Appetites: Foie gras continues to divide

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Duck farm
In this photo taken Sept. 29, 2011, Christian Gasset, owner of Au Bon Canard, a duck farm in Caledonia, checks on his ducks which he raises to produce foie gras. The French delicacy -- which are the livers of fattened ducks or geese -- has become controversial due to the use of gavage, the practice of force-feeding of ducks or geese by means of a tube. Au Bon Canard is one of just four foie gras producers in the country, and the only one in Minnesota.
Photo by Alex Kolyer for MPR

You may have noticed or read about the protest in front of 112 Eatery in June. People in a picketed up and down the block to protest foie gras -- duck or goose liver pate. The Animal Rights Coalition was waving signs printed with photography of abused ducks and holding those signs against the restaurant's picture window glass so the diners inside would see them.

On MPR News Appetites, we look at the controversy of foie gras, which is becoming one of the most divisive debates in the food world. Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, senior editor of Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, speaks with Tom Crann of All Things Considered. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

DARA MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: Foie gras refers exactly to fatty liver. This is something that happens to geese and ducks when they eat too much. And they eat too much in the fall when they're going to get their migration on. They need kind of a lot of energy, they need all their food stores, so they gorge themselves.

In ancient times, people noticed that ducks and geese did this. You can actually find ancient Egyptian tombs where it shows people feeding extra grain to ducks to get this engorged liver that happens naturally.

What people don't like about it is that the way that it's evolved to make this happen in a farming situation is you put a feeding tube down their neck and you give them extra grain at the end of their life. For 15 or 20 seconds, you pour a couple cups, a cup of grain in there and massage it down. This is this traditional way of doing something called gavache. People look it and think, "If you put a cup of corn down my neck, that would be horribly painful!"

Mealtime for ducklings
Hundreds of ducklings start their day eating and drinking at Au Bon Canard, a duck farm in Caledonia Sept. 29, 2011, These ducklings will eventually grow into adults which will be used to produce foie gras, the liver of fattened ducks or geese. The process of making the French delicacy has become controversial due to the use of gavage -- the practice of force-feeding of ducks or geese by means of a tube.
Photo by Alex Kolyer for MPR

People call it torture. Is it torture? This is something we could talk about for a thousand hours. There are factory farms that do this in France and Canada that people object to wildly -- I object to those wildly. There are also artisanal small farms where the ducks are fairly free their whole lives and then they get a lot of food at the end. These kinds of places I have no problem with at all. They're just about as idyllic of a family farm that you're going to get when you're eating the animals.

TOM CRANN: This group, the Animal Rights Coalition, would be opposed to eating any and all animals, generally, right?

MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: They have a big pamphlet on their website that says there is no such thing as humane farming. No family farms, no grass pasture, and no nothing, no eggs, no dairy, none of that.

CRANN: Why are they specifically singling out foie gras?

MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: They say on their website that, they commissioned a study and most people don't know what foie gras is; 44 percent never heard of it. Most people don't eat it, that'd be 59 percent of the people that they asked. Once this group tells them a few things about foie gras, that fully 75 percent of the people are happy to support a ban.

CRANN: Groups like this one have led to a ban in other places. Chicago and even California where it's still in effect, right?

MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: Oh, the state of California. We do not want to turn into the state of California. Regarding foie gras, it is a mess. Yes, they have banned foie gras there. All kinds of chefs and restaurants have been doing rear-guard actions ever since, giving out foie gras, having foie gras doughnuts -- just doing whatever they can to keep foie gras going. Farms have gone bankrupt, distributors moved across the border into Nevada because there they can skirt the laws that way. I couldn't count. I literally can't count the number of lawsuits that are ongoing from this, to this day.

Inspecting foie gras
Christian Gasset and his wife, Liz, owners of Au Bon Canard, a duck farm in Caledonia, inspect several pieces of foie gras to be sold to restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul, among others. Au Bon Canard is one of just four foie gras producers in the country, and the only one in Minnesota.
Photo by Alex Kolyer for MPR

CRANN: Now, foie gras has a long culinary history, especially we think of it in French cuisine. Are we seeing it more in the Twin Cities food scene?

MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: Yes. We are actually probably a leading foie gras market, because we have a fantastic, artisanal, small foie gras producer in southeastern Minnesota, called Au Bon Canard, a French couple who moved here.

They have ducks that live out of doors and kind of do their own thing and they are foie gras ducks. They only slaughter them a couple times a year, it's a small artisanal -- a lot of people call it idyllic -- production facility. So far as things can be idyllic when you're going to eat the animals at the end. This is not a pet situation. These are animals that are being raised for food.

CRANN: Some meat eaters may be a bit squeamish to hear about this process. What is your response to that?

MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: My answer to that is that it's been a piece of culinary history for a really long time. We have a lot of problems in the food supply in general. My personal feeling is that antibiotic-resistant diseases coming out of casual feeding of antibiotics to farm animals -- that is a huge issue, huge problem. This is a tiny issue. I don't think there is any cruelty to it.

Tube-feeding ducks
Ducks at Au Bon Canard, a duck farm in Caledonia, wait for their evening meal in this photo taken Sept. 29, 2011. The ducks will be processed for their livers to produce foie gras, a French delicacy that has become controversial due to the use of gavage -- the practice of force-feeding by means of the tube seen above the pen. Au Bon Canard is one of just four foie gras producers in the country, and the only one in Minnesota.
Photo by Alex Kolyer for MPR

Ducks don't have gag reflexes like we do. Different writers have gone out looking for evidence of animal abuse in bigger production facilities, places like Hudson Valley Foie Gras. They can't find it. Ducks swallow all kinds of things.

CRANN: Whole?

MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: Yes, whole. This is what they do. They don't have teeth. If a duck is going to eat a fish, if a duck is going to eat a mussel -- you know a mollusk, that kind of thing with a hard shell at the bottom of the lake -- they eat the whole thing and just swallow it. They have rocks in their gizzards. They swallow sharp rocks on purpose to get them into their gizzards. When we think, "Oh, this hurts them to eat so much corn in one sitting," I don't think it does hurt them, I think we're just projecting that onto them. This is not, to me, a burning issue.

CRANN: How are restaurateurs in the Twin Cities responding to the possibility of more protests?

MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: This is the big news. This week, a coalition of chefs led by Landon Schoenefeld at HauteDish in downtown Minneapolis, they have a counter-organization now and this is called "86 Foie Phobia." It's a little cumbersome of a name. "86" is something you say in restaurant terms when you run out of something. If you run out of French fries you'd say "86 the French Fries." This is 86 Foie Phobia. This is going to be the organization that's going to have counter-protests. If there's any kind of legislative action, they're going to mobilize against it.

CRANN: This controversy isn't going anywhere?

MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: I don't think so. I think we may look back on this summer as the summer where the battle lines were drawn.

• Dara's blog post:  Minnesota Chefs unite against foie gras protestors