Only 10 more days to order foie gras at a California restaurant. Any restaurant that serves the fatty duck or goose liver after June 30 will be fined up to $1,000.
Foie gras is considered a delicacy in some culinary circles, often paired with toasted brioche and savored for its buttery richness. Animal rights advocates shudder at the method used to produce foie gras: Birds are force fed via a funnel and long tube to create an engorged liver a process known as gavage.
Those advocates mark the upcoming ban as a victory, but California chefs are eyeing the 2013 legislative session to overturn the ban and have found at least one senator who may author a bill on their behalf.
As the clock ticks down, Sacramento area restaurants are serving foie gras in a series of dinners and specials. Restaurateur Patrick Mulvaney said he has never seen the demand higher for foie gras.
"We're probably 50 percent ahead of our usual sales," Mulvaney said. "Over the next couple weeks that figure will probably go a little higher. As a state that's the epicenter of great food, it's absurd that we'd allow someone to take away something that's used as a delicacy for thousands of years."
The bill that bans the force feeding of birds in California, SB 1520, was introduced by former Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, in 2004 and signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The ban allowed a 7 1/2 year sunset for the law to take effect, and a fine up to $1,000 once the ban was in place.
"We just shouldn't be cramming a tube down a duck's throat and forcing in food to make foie gras," Burton wrote in a statement after introducing the bill. "It's an inhumane process that other countries have sensibly banned. I'm pleased California will be next on the list."
Sacramento chefs including Mulvaney, Adam Pechal and Randall Selland have been lobbying legislators to repeal the bill and may have found support in Davis Democratic Sen. Lois Wolk. She voted against the ban when she served in the Assembly, and said she is considering authoring legislation in the 2013 legislative session which would repeal the ban.
"I don't like single-product bans, period," said Wolk, who came to appreciate foie gras while living in France as a student. "These are never easy issues, usually characterized by a lot of intense feeling and not much fact. The chefs have been very open in how to approach this, and now we have a chance to look at this."
A repeal surely will face pushback. Animal rights advocates' anti- foie gras campaign has been a passionate one.
In 2009, a coalition of groups including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protested the Firehouse in Old Sacramento for including foie gras on its menu.
"Force feeding is cruel and inhuman and unnecessary," said Jennifer Fearing, California senior state director for the Humane Society of the United States. "No animal other than humans would eat themselves to the point of disease. (Gavage) causes their liver to swell five to 10 times its normal size. We will continue to fight vigorously to maintain the ban."
Foie gras production is banned in such countries as Italy, Argentina, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Some animal experts, though, say emotions are trumping science in the case of foie gras.
Robert Gordon, former president of the New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association, made a surprise visit to New York's Hudson Valley Foie Gras farm in 2005 and said what he saw surprised him.
"I didn't see any evidence of stress among birds that were tube-fed," he said. "In fact, many were trying to push their way to the front because they wanted to go next. Back then, I was quoted as saying, 'Taking the rectal temperature of a cat is more stressful than the tube feeding of these birds.' "
Ducks naturally gorge themselves before migrations, which causes liver swelling, Gordon pointed out.
"The other side of the argument is that none of them do it that intensely for that period of time to cause what you'd define as a pathology of the liver," Gordon said. "The argument is that we're exaggerating that condition. But I go back and say, don't we exaggerate milk production? Many of these issues aren't science-based, but opinions are made and developed based on zealous and possibly ill-informed propaganda."
Foie gras production is a niche industry in the United States. Only three companies make it domestically, including Sonoma-Artisan Foie Gras, which has a Stockton farming operation.
Guillermo Gonzalez, who founded Sonoma-Artisan Foie Gras in the mid-1980s, has sued members of animal welfare groups for trespassing on his property and has received death threats.
He supported Schwarzenegger's decision to sign SB 1520, in part because it would provide some legal protections for his business. At the time, Gonzalez said he was "excited to work with his administration on a long-term solution."
Gonzalez did not say whether Sonoma-Artisan Foie Gras has developed a gavage-free product that would be compliant with California's new law.
The company has sold out its foie gras supply.
"For the time being we are going to reflect and consider our next steps," said Gonzalez, in an email to The Bee. "As always we will apply our entrepreneurial spirit and innovation to whatever venture we undertake."
The California Restaurant Association, which opposes the ban, isn't sure what to tell its members about who will enforce the law and how the $1,000 fine will be levied.
"A lot of these questions are getting asked for the first time," said Daniel Conway, spokesman for the California Restaurant Association. "It will be interesting to see how this all plays out."
Not all U.S. foie gras bans have stuck. Foie gras was outlawed in Chicago in 2006, but the ban was repealed in 2008. A bill in Maine which that have banned foie gras production was killed in 2009.
For now, a flurry of foie gras dinners are scheduled in Sacramento. Matteo's Pizza and Bistro is holding a "final foie" dinner and wine tasting on Wednesday, and they're selling a "prohibition kit" that includes foie gras, recipes and wine. The Firehouse's June tasting menu, dubbed "farewell to foie gras," includes five courses with foie gras. Mulvaney also plans to offer foie gras up until July 1 at his midtown restaurant.
"It's the idea of someone telling you what can and cannot be served," Mulvaney said. " If this becomes a scientific argument, I think we'll win."