Putting foie gras back on the menu

Good news for gourmands: Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has rolled back the Windy City’s two-year-old ban on foie gras, the fabulously buttery delicacy produced from the engorged livers of force-fed geese and ducks. It’s a move that puts a final nail in the coffin of the PETA crowd’s campaign to make foie gras the new fur - and draws a line under one of the sillier episodes in American environmentalism.

Across the country - in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey - lawmakers have been backing away from efforts to ban foie gras. Chicago’s flagship ban proved an embarrassment and didn’t stick; California, the only other place to pass a ban, has delayed enforcement until 2012, and in the meantime is granting legal protection to producers. In other words, the battle is lost: Across the country, the foie gras ban sleeps with the fishes.

That should give greens pause for thought. After all, foie gras should have been a gimme: If we can’t rally public opinion against a French luxury item valued only by snobbish urban gastronomes, and produced by inflicting indignities upon hapless and relatively photogenic waterfowl, then how can we expect to win the more complex and urgent debates that lie ahead?

Probably activists’ biggest mistake was pursuing a blanket ban on the sale and consumption of foie gras, rather than a more specific ban on inhumane production techniques. That shifted the blame to the consumer rather than the producer, and put greens in the uncomfortably paternalistic position of trying to dictate what people should and shouldn’t be allowed to eat; it also gave farmers and restauranteurs little incentive to explore the various ethical and humane alternatives to traditional production methods.

Fighting for a blanket ban also led campaigners to dismiss evidence that while foie gras factory farms are predictably horrific, small-scale producers are usually fairly humane. The French Institute for Agricultural Research found no increase in ducks’ stress hormones immediately before or after force-feeding sessions, for example; the American Veterinary Medical Association also examined the industry, and determined that birds in US foie gras farms weren’t in any significant distress or pain.

In short, campaigners staked out an absolutist position that proved indefensible - and in the process wasted a vast amount of time and energy fighting a small-scale industry, the flaws of which pale in comparison to the barbarities of industrialized pig and chicken farming. Greens should wave goodbye to foie gras fundamentalism, and treat the reversal of Chicago’s ban as a timely excuse to find a worthier whipping boy.