Sept. 19, 2005--A Chicago alderman has proposed a prohibition on foie gras in the Windy City. If passed, Chicago would join New York, Oregon, and Massachusetts in a move to legally ban production of foie gras. In California, a ban passed last year. Such bans impact restaurants -- and at least one entrepreneur, Guillermo Gonzalez, owner of Sonoma Foie Gras in California.
In 1986, at the age of 33, Gonzalez came to the Central Valley of California fresh from an apprenticeship in the Perigord region of France, the foie gras capital of the world. While learning the trade, Gonzalez met a woman from San Francisco who hosted him when he started a duck farm with $20,000 he had remaining from a prior sale of his home in El Salvador. He worked with both the California Department of Food & Agriculture and the University of California at Davis avian science department to make sure Sonoma Foie Gras was run by the book.
With ten employees, Sonoma Foie Gras has $3 million in sales primarily to restaurant wholesalers and distributors. As haute cuisine spreads, so does the foie gras made from Gonzalez's ducks. In the year since California passed a law banning the production of foie gras over the next seven years, business has been up 25%.
Surprisingly, Gonzalez supports the law and even campaigned for its passage. "It's a last resort for some protection from these animal rights groups," he says, "even though it could effectively put me out of business." The bill grants immunity from civil or criminal actions until 2012 to all businesses using the feeding techniques. Gonzalez would much rather take his chances finding an alternative process than continuing to fight animal cruelty lawsuits brought by groups such as Animal Protection and Rescue League, which he claims cost him $270,000 over the last two years.
Across the country, the foie gras debate has become an emotional issue. Greg Baker, a professor of management and the Director of Food & Agribusiness Institute at Santa Clara University, is a supporter of the ban. "The practice turns the stomachs of many people once they are informed how foie gras is produced," says Baker, "I think the law is reasonable." Gonzalez agrees, obviously for different reasons, but he is confident that he will continue to grow and prove that his livelihood is a healthy one. "Obviously I am using animals for commercial purposes," he says, "but it is a legitimate, non-injurious business and my conscience is clear." The long-term future of Sonoma Foie Gras, though, isn't, and soon, the only availability in Chicago may be on the black market.