Foie gras controversy ruffles local chefs' feathers

Is the end near for foie gras in Pittsburgh?

Shadyside eatery Soba, part of the big Burrito Restaurant Group, was recently vandalized. The group's executive chef, who took this photo, has accused animal rights activists.
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Controversy over that silky French delicacy, whose name in French means "fat liver" and which is made by force-feeding ducks or geese, has prompted bans in California and Chicago. Legislation has also been introduced in Philadelphia to abolish it from that city's finer dining spots, and yesterday, the Humane Society of the United States sued the state of New York -- home of one of the two largest foie gras farms in the country -- to ban it.

While a recent Zogby poll found that 85 percent of Pennsylvanians support such prohibitions, there's no detectable anti-foie gras movement in Pittsbugh City Council just yet.

Still, local upscale restaurateurs have been feeling the heat from animal rights activists who, over the past few years, have picketed and petitioned them to abolish foie gras, claiming that the feeding process is inhumane. Foie gras farmers disagree, saying the practice isn't cruel and dates back to ancient times.

Nonetheless, most Pittsburgh restaurants that once served the high-priced foodstuff -- which can cost between $15 and $20 for less than 2 ounces -- are no longer doing so, although a few are refusing to rule out offering it in the future.

One is Bill Fuller, corporate executive chef for big Burrito Restaurant Group, who says local activists demanded that he sign a letter promising never to serve foie gras again. "I declined," he said. "I'm not serving it now, but I will not be bullied."

On June 11, one of Fuller's assistants found that the locks to all the doors at Soba and Casbah, two Shadyside restaurants owned by big Burrito Restaurant Group, were super-glued shut, and the word "quack" was scrawled on the buildings.

Fuller said the vandalism is the work of animal rights activists, but P.J. McKosky, a volunteer with Voices for Animals of Western Pennsylvania, denied that his group had anything to do with it.

"We are a law-abiding organization, and that's not our way of doing things," said Mr. McKosky, whose group picketed Casbah the night after the vandalism was discovered. "I mean, we have an animal rescue committee where we're fostering and bottle-feeding kittens. That's the kind of work we do. Although to be perfectly honest, the abuse on foie gras farms is far more criminal and ethically disgraceful than any petty glued lock and graffiti on a brick wall."

Pittsburgh Police spokeswoman Tammy Ewin said the matter is under investigation.

Other chefs who declined to sign the VFA's letter say they've experienced similar incidents of vandalism since the anti-foie gras campaign was launched two years ago.

During that time, Toni Pais, owner of the now-closed Baum Vivant in Shadyside, said his locks were super-glued shut, and Steve Thompson, chef-owner at Lucca in Oakland, had bricks thrown through his window, had his building defaced with obscene graffiti and had four statues smashed.

"Let me say, for the record, that I currently don't serve foie gras," said Mr. Thompson. "You're not going to find the words 'foie gras' in bold face on my menu. And that's all I'm going to say."

Robert Uricchio, who owns La Foret in Highland Park with his brother Michael, said animal rights activists have periodically picketed his restaurant and his house for the past two years.

"What I tell them is we may or may not be serving foie gras, but it will be at our discretion," said Mr. Uricchio. And a legal ban on foie gras, he added, could become a "slippery slope" that would trigger attempts to prohibit more popular, affordable foods from meat to chicken to fish.

In fact, Whole Foods, which hasn't sold foie gras since 1997, announced last week it will stop selling live lobsters and soft-shell crabs, calling the practice inhumane.

"Their goal is a vegan society," Mr. Uricchio said of the protesters. "I believe in free speech, and in America as a tolerant society. But people who are intolerant of other's people's rights, well, that's the problem."

Jeremy Carlisle, who owns Le Pommier on the South Side, said he stopped serving foie gras more than a year ago rather than have picketers blocking his entrance.

"We're so small and they were coming, like, every Friday," he said, so, rather than risk his bottom line, he decided to take the item off the menu.

"What it basically comes down to is either you're pro-animal rights or you like eating animals," he said, noting that beef, chicken and fish are also raised in inhumane conditions.

"But these groups are targeting small businesses who can't afford to fight them," Mr. Carlisle added. "You can't convince them to go picket McDonald's, or other big chains that serve things that are raised in equally questionable circumstances, because those places can hire high-priced lawyers to fight them."

Bob Edme, Associated Press
At the season's first foie gras market in Peyrorade, France, in November, the liver of a duck, from which the delicacy is made, is displayed. The practice of force-feeding fowl to grow the livers angers animal activists.
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A door at Soba in Shadyside bears what is believed to be the work of animal rights activists protesting the company's serving of foie gras. Bill Fuller, corporate executive chef for Big Burrito Restaurant Group, shot the photo.
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Kevin Sousa, chef at Bigelow Grille, has just removed foie gras from his restaurant's menu, and agreed.

"I lived for many years in Maryland, where they raise chickens. Go to a chicken farm and tell me that's humane," he said.

"It's disgusting, and if you saw it you'd probably never want to eat chicken again. So why aren't these groups going after those companies? Because of the big-money lawyers."

"But we don't want to have our windows broken, and unless you catch them, there's nothing you can do."

Paul Shapiro, director of the anti-factory farming campaign for the Humane Society of the United States, said the group is, in fact, pressuring corporations to improve conditions for all animals, including ducks and geese.

"The production of foie gras requires egregious cruelty, but so do other forms of food production," he said, noting that the Humane Society has successfully slowed the practice of confining egg-laying hens in battery cages, restrictive crates for mother pigs and veal calves, and other initiatives.

The Humane Society also strongly supports legislation aimed at phasing out foie gras production by farmers, who produce about $17 million worth of it in this country annually.

Still, there's a debate on just how cruel the practice of producing foie gras can be. In a process called "gavage," corn is force-fed to farm-raised ducks and geese through a funnel down their throats until their livers expand to at least six times normal size. At 16 weeks, the animals are slaughtered.

Farmers argue that the ducks and geese have tough throats and no gag reflex, and feel no pain. Moreover, they say, migratory birds gorge themselves to store energy prior to long flights.

Activists argue that the ducks can barely walk or breathe, and that they do suffer pain from damaged throats.

David Silverman, Getty Images
A farm hand uses a tube and a pneumatic pump to force-feed a goose with enriched corn meal to enlarge its liver at a small farm in Moshave Azarya in central Israel. Israel banned the practice this spring.
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Whatever the case, the activists have won some converts in the Pittsburgh restaurant community.

Kevin Joyce, owner of The Carlton Restaurant, Downtown, said he was picketed by protesters a few years ago, and after viewing a video they provided him that showed the feeding process, "I made a personal decision not to use the product. I was very disturbed by it, frankly."

Robert Vargo, chef at LeMont on Mount Washington, said his restaurant stopped serving foie gras 15 years ago. "I couldn't possibly serve it," he said. "What they do to these animals to plump up these insides is not proper. We've been approached by vendors, but we won't buy it."

That said, Mr. Vargo added that he was unhappy about the acts of vandalism committed against other restaurants.

"You can protest, but to damage property, that's not right," he said.

Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at or 412-263-1949.


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