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Foie gras, politics and elite dining

Arguments over the ethics of an ancient delicacy should take place around a dining table, not in the political arena.

Foie gras at a fine dining restaurant.
Foie gras at a fine dining restaurant. (Martin Baron, Unsplash)

As the silly season draws to a close, we have a late entrant for its silliest news story: A feud between the governor of New York and the mayor of New York City over — wait for it — luxury goose and duck liver. Kathy Hochul and Eric Adams, who differ on issues of genuine importance, like the housing of migrants, are butting heads over foie gras, the delectable staple of high-end restaurants.

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At issue is whether the city has the authority to stop its sale. Mayor Adams is keen to impose a ban, signed into law in 2019 by his predecessor, Bill de Blasio, as part of a slate of animal-rights measures. It was supposed to go into effect late last year, but the state blocked it, citing a law that bars urban centers from dictating what farmers can produce and sell. (Two upstate farms had already sued the city on the same grounds.)

The city then sued the state, contending it “values animal welfare over a luxury food item that requires force-feeding of birds.” Earlier this month, an Albany judge ruled the state hadn’t done enough research in blocking the ban but left open the possibility that it could.  

As a New Yorker as much as a foodie, I object to this flagrant waste of city and state resources, of tax dollars and of judicial time, more so because I’ve seen where it will likely lead — to the farcical situation in California, where the delicacy is banned by state law but can nonetheless be imported from elsewhere.

In truth, the arguments over foie gras should have never gone beyond the dining table. I’ve had plenty around mine, on whether it’s ethical to buy or healthy to eat. Short answers: Yes and yes, in moderation.

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French for “fat liver,” it is made by forcibly overfeeding ducks and geese to enlarge their livers, up to tenfold. The process, known as “gavage,” involves sticking feeding tubes down their gullets. Is it cruel to the birds? Perhaps, but demonstrably less so than raising chicken in factory farms — and you don’t see Adams agitating to end that practice. The ducks and geese are typically allowed to roam until they are ready for fattening. Is it bad for humans? Yes, if you eat too much of it, because of the high fat and cholesterol content.

But there is no question that it is delicious, as mankind has known for thousands of years. (The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all enjoyed foie gras; these days, it is mostly identified with the haute cuisine of France.) Unctuous in texture and subtle in taste — many first-timers describe it as meat-flavored butter — foie gras can be prepared in many ways. My personal favorite is the simplest, lightly sauteed and served with toasted brioche and a side of fig jam.

It is undeniably expensive, which means even gourmands eat it only occasionally. Prices depend on quality (goose liver is considered superior to duck liver), form (from whole lobes to tinned mousse) and source (imports from France tend to be dearer than US-made), but you can expect to pay upward of $100 ( 8,265 approx.) a pound for very good foie gras. In New York restaurants, a dish with a small portion of the liver will set you back at least $40 ( 3,305 approx). 

The price of foie gras is the key to understanding the politics around it. Since it is by definition a luxury product, consumed by a small elite, the likes of Adams and de Blasio can ban it without risking a large block of votes. It is an easy sop to animal-rights activists, who might galvanize a larger constituency on election day. Foie gras producers tend to be small farmers and lack the lobbying power of Big Meat.

Adams is said to favor a mostly plant-based diet, making an occasional exception for fish. Those are his choices. He shouldn’t be wasting my tax dollars to meddle with mine.

The column is by Bobby Ghosh, a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.

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