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California Says Au Revoir to Foie Gras

"I never thought I'd see the day when I can smoke pot in California but not eat foie gras."

Duck
GK Hart/Vikki Hart | Photographer's Choice | Getty Images
Duck

That was a comment from a man who paid $65 earlier this month to attend a party in San Francisco pairing foie gras with fine wines.

The party was supposed to be a secret farewell to a food banned for sale and production in the Golden State as of July 1.

However, animal rights activists discovered its location and set up a protest outside, shouting, "Helpless ducks are force fed!"

The party was thrown by Laurel Pine, owner of Mirepoix USA, an online seller of fine foods.

"Foie gras is probably about 40 percent of our business," she says. Pine's business used to be based in the San Francisco Bay Area, but she has decamped to Reno, Nevada, because of the upcoming ban.

"I think it is the beginning of an agenda to really limit what people eat, and to try to change people's eating habits to not eat meat."

The bill, passed in 2004, gave the industry eight years to adapt before the law took affect. After Sunday, those caught selling foie gras produced through force feeding face fines of $1,000.

"It's not a ban on foie gras, it's a ban on animal cruelty," says John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party.

Burton authored the ban back when he was in the State Senate, and he says selling or producing foie gras will still be legal if it doesn't come from force fed ducks. Foie gras fans say when ducks gorge themselves, the product is inferior.

Chefs are outraged. "I think we just thought it was going to go away," says Greg Daniels of the ban. He owns the Haven Gastropub in Pasadena, where he sells a foie gras cheesecake. "To chefs around the world, they think it's ridiculous. It's the stupidest thing that Californians could ever do, and it just proves the Californians are stupid."

"What's next after foie gras?" asks Los Angeles chef Ludo Lefebvre.

"You cannot replace foie gras."

Many chefs claim force feeding is not painful, as ducks have no gag reflex.

"Ducks have a collagen-lined esophagus that they are able to swallow entire fish," says Chef Daniels. He believes animals rights groups have gone after foie gras because it's an easier battle than taking on big companies which practice "factory farming of chickens...it was easy to go after something that is considered a 'one percenter' food."

Opponents of the ban say it will impact California tourism, as foodies may choose to go to Las Vegas instead. John Burton, the bill's author, disagrees. "There's somebody, say, from Cincinnati, and they want to go to California. They want to see the beaches, Disneyland," he says. "'Oh, God, they don't have foie gras. Let's go to, you know, South Dakota."

Foie gras fans are hoping to have the law overturned. In the meantime, possession will still be legal, only the sale and production are banned. Some chefs wonder who might test the law by giving foie gras away for free and charging more for everything else.

Some of those at Laurel Pine's farewell party are planning to hire couriers to buy foie gras in Nevada and bring it across state lines. "Like prohibition, it'll come back," says one.

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  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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