Well, this was bound to happen.
Christian conservatives are upset about religious freedom because they can’t turn gays away from bakeries. Anti-Obamacare wingnuts are carping about healthcare freedom. So it was only a matter of time before the cultured lovers of foie gras coined the term, and the cause, of “culinary freedom”.
Indeed, flying the same (beige? taupe?) banner, a federal judge struck down the state of California’s ban on the yummy concoction that, alas, often is produced by force-feeding geese. Yesterday, California appealed.
Contrary to the lofty rhetoric of animal-rights activists and gourmands, however, the court’s opinion actually was based on fairly dull regulatory interpretation. At issue was not the ban on producing foie gras, but the ban on selling it. Here, the court found, California overreached. In fact, the sale of poultry products is regulated by the federal government—in particular, by the Poultry Products Inspection Act. Those federal regulations trump the state regulations. So California can’t make illegal what the feds have made legal.
Foie gras for everyone.
Obviously, there’s something ridiculous about the whole controversy. The court’s opinion is littered with jokes like, “Defendants want to have their foie gras and eat it too.” Ludicrously, some Californians set up “duckeasies” that circumvented the sales ban (which went into effect in 2012) by offering foie gras for free. Even the words are silly: fwah grah. So aspirated, so French.
But underneath the silliness, the battle of the foie may well be a precursor to broader debates about animal rights and food production.
Really, the whole reason we’re talking about foie gras in the first place is that it is a niche product made by small operations without the political clout of, say, Tyson or Perdue. The cruel practices of large-scale poultry, pig, and cattle farming—extensively documented by animal rights activists and filmmakers alike—put force-feeding a few ducks to shame. My unsubstantiated guess is that more chickens suffer in a single day in Arkansas than a year’s worth of ducks fattened up for foie gras.
Plus, foie gras is easy to ban. It’s a luxury item, not a staple. It’s sold in a handful of restaurants and stores to elites; it’s the very opposite of red-meat America. And it’s decadent. Foie gras isn’t a fur coat keeping someone warm in winter—it’s a pointless mink stole. Delightful, but decorative.
But the same logic behind the foie gras debate holds for far larger questions as well.
California’s argument, as it files its appeal, is that the ban is not really a food regulation at all. No one is claiming the foie gras is bad for people—the claim is that it’s bad for geese. This is an animal-rights regulation, more like bans on horse-drawn carriages than bans on raw cheese. The PPIA should have nothing to do with it.
But if that’s true, then couldn’t California also ban bacon from factory-farmed pigs, whose stalls are so small they can’t even sit or turn around? How about chickens whose beaks were singed at birth, or milk from cows sick from drugs and hormones?
In each of these cases, California wouldn’t be regulating food, exactly—not in the way that the FDA does. They’d be regulating the sale of a product produced in an objectionable way. It could be goose liver, or mink fur—the point is not that the item is a foodstuff, but that it’s the product of what the people of California consider to be torture.
Now, presumably we’d all agree that the state shouldn’t force a single food ethic on everyone. Some of us are vegetarians, some of us are not; some eat only organic, some do not. These are, in a sense, matters of conscience and ethical decision-making, which we ordinarily do not want to assign to the state. Is foie gras really that different?
Yet the government dictates ethics all the time, including when it comes to animals. You can’t torture dogs just because you think it’s okay—just ask Michael Vick. Likewise, presumably the state can say that you can’t torture geese by force-feeding them, and can’t make use of the products derived from such a practice.
This is a gray area not because “culinary freedom” is a thing. It isn’t—certainly not categorically. The ethics of animal use are regulated all the time, even if carriage drivers, French chefs, and dogfighters disagree with the majority. Indeed, even if we disagree about whether “animal rights” exist at all, governments have regulated the treatment of animals since Roman and biblical times.
Foie gras is only a gray area because reasonable people disagree about whether force-feeding constitutes animal cruelty; because relatively few consumers and producers are impacted by these regulations; and because the whole thing is faintly ridiculous.
But as more and more people raise doubts about the American food supply, and the ways in which it is produced, the gray zone is only going to grow. For now, the Smithfield Foods of the world have captured the legislative process, and ensured that their visions of animal rights (or lack thereof) remain dominant. That may not last forever, however, especially as consumers learn more than they wanted to know about just how that bacon got to the plate.
We can joke about “culinary freedom” when it’s a few paté aficionados waving the banner. But it won’t be so funny when it’s giant, rich, and powerful corporations who make billions by treating animals like trash.