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Free Choice Isn’t Chopped Liver

pan-seared duck foie gras.
photo of pan-seared duck foie gras courtesy the InterContinental Hong Kong

You can’t persuade a duck or goose to eat when it isn’t hungry. This is why producers of foie gras, the delicacy made from enlarged livers, must force-feed the birds to get the desired results.

To folks who neither produce nor consume foie gras (and perhaps to some who do), both the process and product can sound pretty distasteful. I am not a foie gras man myself. I have never ordered it in a restaurant, and I certainly have never prepared it. But the French who gave the dish its name also coined the phrase laissez-faire, which roughly translates as “to each his own.”

Well, not in New York City nowadays, or at least not for very much longer. And not in California. And, in various permutations, not in the growing number of mainly coastal enclaves in this country where the phrase “freedom of choice” seems to be honored with respect to reproductive rights, while in other spheres it is displaced by a belief that political power is a muscle that must be regularly exercised against resistance.

The New York City Council recently voted 42-6 for a bill to ban the sale of foie gras. If signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio – who has said he supports it – the legislation will take foie gras off the menus at the city’s fine dining establishments and out of the counters at specialty retailers. Restaurants and grocers will have a three-year grace period before facing fines of up to $2,000 per violation.

The legislation is bad news for foie gras aficionados, of course. Also for the restaurants they patronize, and for the staff whose jobs that patronage supports. Granted, few if any of the roughly 1,000 NYC establishments that serve foie gras serve it exclusively. But even if the bill has no effect on the number of diners at the city’s tables, foie gras is a pricey item. Taking it off the menu might well have an impact on the total tab, and thus on the tips that servers and other staff earn.

The bill is also bad news for poultry farmers in the Hudson Valley region north of New York City. They are the main providers of foie gras to the city – and of duck meat to the region, too. They say they may have a hard time staying in business when one of their most lucrative products is taken off the market. So it turns out that I have a stake in this issue after all, because while I don’t partake of foie gras, I have been known to consume a nice duck breast more than every now and then. Although I don’t live in New York anymore, work and family commitments take me there regularly.

Whether this bill is good news for ducks and geese is a matter of perspective. Animal rights activists and supporters of the legislation, most of whom have surely never raised or slaughtered a farm animal, say force-feeding is inhumane. Farmers say it does not cause pain and that their birds are raised in more comfortable conditions than most commercial poultry. Marcus Henley, who runs Hudson Valley Foie Gras, told the Eater that he invited City Council members to visit his farm to see how the fowl were treated. None took him up on his offer. The birds, for their part, have not stated an opinion. Yet if there are fewer farmers raising fewer birds, we are talking in large part about the comfort of hypothetical creatures who will never exist. Like all domestic food animals, these birds are created to be consumed.

The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Councilwoman Carlina Rivera of Manhattan, had an ironically French response to the foie gras farmers’ concerns. She said they should find a way to make foie gras without force-feeding the animals, The Wall Street Journal reported. Or as a famous French queen allegedly said, “let them eat cake.”

New York City is not the first place to ban foie gras. Its ideological comrade-in-arms, California, banned the product statewide in 2012. The ban was upheld on appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider the case. So serving foie gras in California today is as illegal as selling Cuban cigars. Chicago attempted a foie gras ban in 2006, but the ordinance was repealed two years later.

The whole affair strikes me as needlessly intrusive, albeit emblematic of our times. Whatever happened to the art of persuasion? If you believe that your fellow citizens are basically good people who want to do the right thing most of the time, why not try to convince them that a product is unworthy of their support, or that they should switch to an alternative? When you convince enough of them, the market for the product shrinks. Suppliers find more highly prized products to supply, and you can accomplish much of what you seek to do without resorting to coercion.

When I was growing up in New York, Fred the Furrier – real name Fred Schwartz – was a local icon. He had the fur concession at a series of prominent department stores, beginning with S. Klein, later Alexander’s, and ultimately Bloomingdale’s. His “fur vault” made the product accessible at moderate prices geared toward independent working women and their spouses of relatively modest means. Schwartz took a high-end product and brought it to the middle class. In 1984 The Fur Vault became a publicly traded company.

But that was just as baby boomers were starting their families, and their tastes – our tastes – were very different from those of their parents. My wife and I were married in 1983. Jewelry (usually a nice pair of earrings) has been my go-to gift for special occasions ever since. She would have been aghast if I had come home with a fur coat or stole for her. I can’t even recall that she ever had a fur-trimmed garment. I’m sure our daughters never did, and never would have wanted one.

By 1990 the business was in steep decline. A South Korean company acquired The Fur Vault that year for a mere $15 million. Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s recently announced that they are stopping fur sales altogether; the market just isn’t there.

But this isn’t good enough for some modern crusaders. California recently became the first state to ban sales of new fur products altogether, with limited exceptions (for now) for items like Merino wool and leather. Because, of course, nobody can go to a Hollywood red carpet event without a fur, right? New York and Hawaii are reportedly considering similar legislation. How big could the fur market in Hawaii possibly be, anyway?

As far as I can tell, this endless exercise of power will stop only when voters remove power from those who wield it so wantonly. Most of us want to do the right thing most of the time. We don’t need to have it crammed down our throats.

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