In Spain, there is a farm where acorns and olives spill across the ground, beckoning geese that contentedly gorge themselves until they are slaughtered for their luscious fatty livers.
Virtually everywhere else in the world, however, farmers prepare ducks and geese whose livers will become the delicacy known as foie gras by force-feeding them several times a day through tubes thrust down their throats. The cruelty of this process led California to pass a law in 2004 banning the force-feeding of birds and the sale of foie gras produced by that method. (Any farmer who can replicate the "ethical" foie gras produced in Spain could do so here.) The state gave producers and restaurateurs more than seven years to get ready to comply. The law goes into effect Sunday.
Although California is the first state to ban the force-feeding of birds, it joins more than a dozen countries that have either outlawed it or deemed it illegal under existing animal welfare statutes. Within the U.S., the law is part of a growing body of state and federal measures that seek to minimize cruelty in the treatment of food animals. In 2008, Californians resoundingly passed Proposition 2, which banned cramped cages for egg-laying hens. A piece of legislation now wending its way through Congress would supersede that proposition by amending the omnibus farm bill to set national standards for roomier caging for those hens. The rationale behind these laws is that even when animals are raised to be used or killed for food, they deserve, in a humane society, not to be mistreated before they are slaughtered.
In the years since California's foie gras law was passed, restaurateurs, chefs and food writers have stoked controversy over the ban, some agreeing that it's a wise and ethical policy and many others seeking to have it repealed. Some have even argued that because ducks and geese have no gag reflex and can swallow fish whole, the process of force-feeding them is not really cruel. That's a cynical argument; animal welfare advocates point out that the force-feeding swells a bird's liver to 10 times its usual size, essentially putting it in a diseased state.
Despite the continuing battles over foie gras, it's about to become illegal to produce or sell it here. So we have some advice for chefs who are rolling out last-gasp foie gras meals at restaurants throughout the state and diners who are hungrily tossing the stuff down their gullets: Eat up while you can — and then get over it.