The Foie Gras Battle Continues In Atlanta [Politics]

1st Course: Torchon of Foie Gras

Restaurant Eugene and Linton Hopkins, as well as a slew of Atlanta area restaurants, have come under fire from activists over their use of foie gras, a highly contentious liver dish.  It’s really been a few years since the debate over the cultivation of foie gras was a focal point of the food system; however, it always seems to simmer just bellow the surface.  Now, this debate is in our city and I thought I’d offer y’all a little perspective on the history and true nature of the debate.

This topic always strikes a chord with me due to the amount of misinformation used in “proving an opinion.”   By extension, and as with many people, general issues of sustainability and “proper” behavior in the food world are important to me.  I try very hard to provide readers with access to information that will allow them to make educated and informed decisions as it pertains to their food intake.  When someone is attacked, I think it is important to give people some perspective.  I am writing this here post as a group of misinformed and/or under-educated people are trying to bully convince restaurants to stop serving FG.  The short of this admittedly opinionated post is to make sure that you watch this and read both this and this. [All are linked to with context in the text that follows]

The Background

Foie gras is product made from a specially fattened liver of a goose or duck.  It was traditionally made through a combination of gavage (force-feeding) and the immobilization of the animal.  As time went along, other methods (deemed perhaps more humane) have been introduced.

In recent years, Animal Rights activists have been attempting (and sometimes with great success) to have this food banned from use.  Much of this has been eloquently summarized by Dan Barber in a TED Talk from 2009.  Meanwhile, the San Fran restaurant Incanto carefully crafted a letter discussing their use of foie gras.  I think one of the more interesting points is on the use of gavage and whether or not it is cruel.

Foie Gras In Atlanta

Fast forward to 2011 and the debate has gotten some serious attention here in Atlanta.  In April, Rebecca Weston, on behalf of The Animal Protection & Rescue League, organized a protest in front of Bistro Niko.  Soon after, the AJC made mention of this.

First up was Howard Pousner when he wrote about the protest.  As a reminder though: Pousner was simply reporting and not overtly asserting an opinion.  Soon after, Bob Barr wrote an op-ed piece on this debate and where it fit in the grand scheme of things.

I have three notable observations about the Pousner article.  For one, Pousner failed to mention that gavage is not the only method employed.  Even a cursory bit of research or a question to most any one of the food people at the AJC would have told him otherwise.  Second, Pousner included quotes from Weston, but nothing of note from Bistro Niko.  Perhaps Bistro Niko didn’t want to go on record or perhaps as Weston asserts, they refused to engage in a discussion.  Whatever the case may be, the article makes it sound as if the group had politely approached 14 metro-area restaurants and only after being stonewalled did they proceed.  Last, three unnamed restaurants agreed to Weston’s demands.  I am curious to know which three restaurants did change their mind and which restaurants were actually approached.

As for Barr, his attack of the protesters extends well beyond the world of food and into broader topics of politics.  His dismissal of Weston and her contingent is on account of the fringe nature of the issue.  It seems to me (aka this is just how I read his words) Barr proposes that only after debates over national debt, taxes, wars and civil liberties are settled, should we then find time for this topic.  Perhaps that’s an over simplification of his point.  In any event, exactly where the foie gras debate fits in the grand scheme of things isn’t really the point of this post.  Though I will repeat what the Incanto team did:

On a per-capita basis, the average American eats approximately 220 pounds of meat each year. Of that total, foie gras represents approximately four one-hundredths of an ounce per person.

The Fallout

Yesterday, On Friday, Restaurant Eugene posted an article on their experience with Weston, what actually happened, and how they responded to it. 

Of particular note:

The first complaint from Rebecca Weston came in March and stated that if we did not immediately remove foie gras from our menu we would be subject to protest, but that if we did remove it, positive reviews of our restaurant would be posted on Yelp.

While I am sure there is more to this story and that Weston herself would probably recap the details in a manner more favorable to her, she’s going to have a hard time explaining the use of extortion as a means to her end.  More interesting notes and points of research are included in the post, take for example the bits of history and some perspective on Eugene’s source of said goods.  From what I can tell, the data points are valid. 

In addition, Hopkins mentions, without getting into too many specifics, a recap of the dialogue that did take place.  Not surprising to me, Hopkins says that despite this face to face discussion, Weston wouldn’t be satisfied unless Eugene succumbed to their pressure.  I will also say that he formally thanked Weston for her time, though I think it’s pretty safe to assume Linton has stronger, more adverse feelings about the interaction.  Again: please, read that article!

My Take

So let me say kudos to chef Hopkins, Dan Barber, the guys at Incanto, and any and everyone else trying to educate the public on the nuances of this debate.  I will continue to visit your restaurants, buy from your farms, and shop in your markets.  While Hopkins and those whose livelihoods depend on serving food to paying customers must remain steadfastly professional, I have no such burden. 

As to those that still operate in a fashion that makes me uncomfortable: I will, as always, do what I feel is appropriate in terms of patronage.

But above all, to Rebecca Weston and the rest of you extortionists <insert expletive>… GET BENT.  I love the fact that she is so quick to use Yelp, a site constantly under the gun for unethical behavior, as a tool in the goal of moral superiority. While there is a legitimacy to the anti-foie gras perspective, those methods and that behavior undermine the movement which supporters so arduously attempt to further.  The group offers no opportunity for real discourse, only a facade surely in an attempt to strengthen their position as “reasonable people.”  They offer no opportunity for further education, and most importantly – they frame opinions in terms of right and wrong.

To the rest of you: I continue to encourage education.  Acquire information from multiple sources and determine where you sit on something like this.  Perhaps someone in the anti-foie gras camp can offer a well thought out and appropriately rational articulation for that side of the debate.  Please, pass it on as I would love to both read and share it.  Again, I know where I sit on this debate and I won’t begrudge you for disagreeing with me.  But please do so responsibly.

On Comments: If for whatever reason you would like to comment on this – please do so.  However, this will not turn into a soapbox for name calling and hostility.  Yes, I was hostile in my attempts to speak for those who couldn’t, but that’s the luxury of having this blog.


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