Foie Gras at Heart of Beltway Brawl

Posted February 9, 2007 at 6:06pm

Serve foie gras seared with caramelized apples and a fresh cranberry compote, and it’s a gourmet meal. Throw in animal activists, deep-pocketed farm interests and a high-powered lobbying firm, and you’ve got a recipe for a Beltway brawl.

Beset coast-to-coast by a growing controversy over their farming methods, the producers of foie gras — the French delicacy of duck liver — have organized into a trade association. And that group in turn has tapped the heavy hitters at Quinn Gillespie & Associates to cook up a public relations and lobbying defense.

The industry is facing a rising chorus of complaints from animal welfare advocates, who say ducks reared to produce the food are subjected to inhumane treatment.

Through a mix of litigation and grass-roots campaigns, the groups are racking up state and local bans on foie gras across the country. California will phase it out by 2012. Chicago already has outlawed its sale. And measures to make foie gras contraband are moving in the state capitals of New York, New Jersey and Illinois.

With new threats to their livelihood emerging simultaneously, and on multiple fronts, foie gras producers last year flew into crisis mode. Pulling together the three American farms that produce the stuff, as well as some importers and domestic distributors, the industry last fall formed the Artisan Farmers Alliance.

In November, the group signed up Quinn Gillespie to try to contain the problem, and lobbyists at the firm say they are now ramping up a multifront strategy.

At issue in the fight is the treatment of the birds raised to produce the delicacy. Animal advocates say ducks are cruelly force-fed through a metal tube that pumps an unnatural amount of partially cooked corn down their esophagi. The ducks often suffer injuries from the force-feeding, a process that causes their livers to swell to 10 times their natural size and induces disease, the groups say.

“Foie gras results from among the most cruel and inhumane factory farming practices in existence. The point is to induce a state of disease in the animal,” said Paul Shapiro, director of the factory farming campaign for the Humane Society of the United States.

In waging a campaign to outlaw the food, the Humane Society is being joined by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and a group called Farm Sanctuary.

Producers defend the process as mostly natural. Sonoma Foie Gras, a California farm scheduled for the chopping block if the state ban is upheld, “is committed to the highest standards of animal welfare, and utilizes humane and modern techniques in the raising and feeding of ducks,” according to a statement on its Web site. “Ducks are never individually caged and are allowed to free range for most of their lives.”

And backers of the practice call it traditional, small-scale and sustainable. They say consumers should be able to choose for themselves whether to eat the food. “If individuals choose not to eat a particular product, that’s their right. But the government shouldn’t get involved in what people are or aren’t allowed to eat,” said Nick Maduros, a Democratic lobbyist heading the effort for Quinn Gillespie.

So far, the firm’s efforts have been focused beyond Washington, D.C., on trying to douse kitchen fires out in the states. But they also are putting out feelers on Capitol Hill to make sure any federal proposals addressing the issue never gain steam.

The first threat could emerge in coming weeks as Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) prepare to introduce a measure that would ban the federal government from buying meat produced under certain circumstances.

That bill, first proposed last year, is broadly drawn. It requires animals be kept in shelters that give them room to stand, lie down, walk, and turn around and extend their limbs or wings without touching their barriers. It also prohibits force-feeding — a provision aimed at producers of veal and foie gras, according to the sponsors.

“I just feel there is no reason … to take some poor duck and shove tubes down its throat,” DeFazio said. “There are substitutes, or more humane ways to get the same product, and I just feel that’s something, as the dominant species on earth, that we should do.”

DeFazio said he is unsure when he plans to reintroduce the bill, but he likely will do so in coming months. Because it would affect producers of beef, pork and chicken, he acknowledged moving it forward over their energetic opposition will be difficult. “It’s not something that’s going to happen quickly,” he said. A Shays spokeswoman added the Connecticut Republican sees the push as a long-term effort.

It is unclear what effect the measure would have on foie gras producers, because the federal government does not appear to be a major consumer. The stuff is hardly a staple in school lunchrooms, or in prisons, for example. It reportedly has appeared on White House dinner menus. A White House spokeswoman did not return a call for comment.

“Our understanding is the federal government does not purchase a significant amount of it, so it is not the focus of the bill, but the recognition that force-feeding animals is not humane is a step forward,” Shays spokeswoman Sarah Moore said.

Nevertheless, Quinn Gillespie’s Maduros said the farmers alliance would oppose the measure. “I’m sure that sponsors of the legislation are well-intentioned, but the bill is not based on the facts and on the science,” he said.

In that position, he already can count on support from at least one lawmaker. The southeastern New York district of Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D) is home to LaBelle Farms and Hudson Valley Foie Gras, the only two domestic foie gras producers besides the Sonoma operation. A Hinchey spokesman said he would try to block any attempt to curtail the production of foie gras.