SACRAMENTO — For a long time, the politics of pate have been conducted on the outskirts of the law.
In their zeal to spare ducks from the force-feeding used to ensure the rich liver that makes foie gras a delicacy, animal rights activists have sneaked onto farms and set free the fowl, and defaced a specialty food store being built in Sonoma because it planned to sell goose and duck foie gras.
But activists Monday scored a legally legitimate -- if somewhat tenuous -- victory before the California Legislature. After more than an hour of intense testimony in which Hollywood celebrities appeared and dueling veterinarians debated the stress level of ducks, a Senate panel voted 4 to 3 to ban the sale of any foie gras produced by force-feeding.
But foie gras aficionados have ducked, as it were, any immediate deprivation of their favored terrine.
The duck debate by the Senate Committee on Business and Professions hinged less on the health of the birds than on the economic welfare of Sonoma Foie Gras, the one California farm that specializes in raising them. The panel agreed to the measure only after it was amended to delay taking effect for 7 1/2 years, which senators said would be enough time for the owner, Guillermo Gonzalez, to retool his business, which employs about 25 people in Farmington, near Stockton.
Even if the bill passes the full Senate, its prospects in the less assertively liberal Assembly seem in doubt. Still, the compromise offered no solace to gourmets.
"It is ironic that in California, of all places, a tiny minority can insist on force-feeding the omnivorous majority its own particular religion," said Daniel Scherotter, executive chef of Palio D'Asti, a San Francisco restaurant, who testified against SB 1520.
The methods used to create foie gras -- the French phrase for "fatty liver" -- have become a target of animal rights activists around the globe. Fourteen countries, including Italy and Israel, now have some sort of ban, according to Senate researchers.
But no state in America yet has legislated the production of foie gras. California, which bans the sale of horse meat for human consumption, has provided fowl with some empathetic protections in the past. It is illegal to give away live fowl to lure patrons to a place of amusement, to artificially color them, or train them to fight. The state also has its own version of an 8th Amendment for birds, requiring that poultry be "rendered insensible" to pain before they are slaughtered. They cannot be skinned or defeathered while alive.
The new measure would not only prohibit the sale of inhumanely produced foie gras, but also prohibit anyone from force-feeding a duck, goose or other bird in order to excessively enlarge its liver. Violators could be fined up to $1,000 per incident.
The concern with Gonzalez, who appeared before the committee, exceeded the senators' devotion to ferreting out the truth concerning the core of the advocates' allegations: whether ducks are force-fed food in a manner so intense that the feeding tubes sometimes tear at their esophagi, psychologically scarring them to the point where they become terrified at the prospect of subsequent feedings.
Holly Cheever, a veterinarian from upstate New York who testified for the advocates, said she had twice inspected dead birds from farms in the Catskill Mountains. "We saw trauma that is never seen in a migratory bird," she said at the hearing, which was crammed with more than 60 duck advocates, including actress Bea Arthur and Melissa Rivers, the E! Entertainment channel commentator who specializes in critiquing Hollywood fashion.
Cheever said some birds were so sickened by ruptured esophagi and enlarged livers that they could not walk. "Some birds have been witnessed trying to escape from their human handlers, having to drag themselves with their wings because they could no longer stand," she said.
Another veterinarian supporting the bill, Chris Sanders, disputed the suggestion that the ducks would eat as much as they could in nature and called the birds farmed for foie gras "couch-potato ducks."
"Birds that migrate are athletes," he said. "They're not going to gorge themselves."
The opponents' duck experts, who said they had examined the feeding methods at Sonoma Foie Gras, said very few of the fowl had been injured from the feeding, and almost all could stand and walk without trouble.
Francine Bradley, a poultry specialist at UC Davis' cooperative extension, said livers enlarged from the feedings were not debilitating and would be "completely reversible" in ducks that were not slaughtered.
"This is not a diseased product," she said.
Asked by Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City) to compare the stress level of a force-fed duck with one in the wild, she said, "I am not a duck, but if something larger than me was chasing me and trying to consume me, I'd think that would be terribly stressful."
Ken Frank, who owns La Toque restaurant in Rutherford, said he had examined Sonoma's ducks as well and come away comfortable with the way they were treated.
"These are birds I look in the eye and I'm proud to put on the table," Frank said.
Several senators noted that despite more than 1,000 letters they had received on both sides, they were unsure what the real experience of the ducks was. "If we listen to these conversations, somebody is not telling the truth," said Sen. Edward Vincent (D-Inglewood).
But after lobbying by the bill's influential sponsor, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), the panel agreed to send the bill to the entire Senate. Burton predicted it would be received favorably there, though its future in the Assembly is less sure. Burton said: "I was surprised, and I've carried a lot of animal bills, at the amount of people who turned out for this bill."