'Meat is murder' militants target California's new taste for foie gras

Not long ago, only a few food connoisseurs and Francophiles in the United States had any notion what foie gras was. Now it is becoming downright dangerous to handle the stuff.

Laurent Manrique, a top-flight San Francisco chef famous for his foie gras appetiser trolley, had his house spray-painted, his car splashed with acid and his garage door sealed shut with glue earlier this month, presumably by animal rights activists, although they did not leave a calling card.

His business partner, Didier Jaubert, was also targeted with slogans such as "foie gras is animal torture" and "stop or be stopped" daubed on his front door, windows and garage doors.

And wreckers broke into the men's new venture, a café-restaurant and food shop to open in the wine-producing town of Sonoma next month. They poured cement into the sinks to clog the plumbing, spray-painted the walls, furnishings and light fixtures in blood-red, and turned on all the taps, flooding out not only the future premises of Sonoma Saveurs, but also two neighbouring businesses.

Gloating accounts of the attacks have appeared on an animal rights website called Bite Back. In breathless dispatches posted after each incident, anonymous "overground activists" decry foie gras production as an "atrocity" in which ducks are subjected to "torture".

Pouring concrete into the pipes at Sonoma Saveurs, they write, "symbolises the damage done to the ducks' digestive systems by force-feeding them". And they add: "We cannot let this restaurant open."

The Sonoma police have yet to announce a solid lead. The FBI has taken an interest, denouncing the attacks as acts of "domestic terrorism".

Mr Manrique has been particularly spooked by the attacks, especially after the people who vandalised his house left a videotape of him and his family at home. An accompanying note warned that they were watching his every move.

Mr Jaubert insisted the Sonoma Saveurs opening would go ahead - albeit a month behind schedule - and pleaded for more reasonable forms of protest. "We don't want to turn this into a war of religion over foie gras," Mr Jaubert said. "We are peaceful, tolerant people. For us, it is an individual choice. We understand people can be opposed. But these are not frivolous threats we received. We have nothing to hide and we treat the animals quite properly." In France, outrage over le gavage, the method of shoving grain down the gullets of ducks and geese with funnels and metal tubes so that their livers grow bloated, has raged for decades. But in the United States, foie gras is a novelty.

Until the 1970s, it was strictly an imported food found at only a handful of expensive French restaurants on the East Coast. Then domestic production began, first at a couple of farms in the Hudson Valley in New York state, and now, thanks to another business partner of Mr Manrique's and Mr Jaubert's, on an old walnut farm not far from Lake Tahoe in California.

Foie gras has found its way on to the menus of almost all the best restaurants in San Francisco and the wine country an hour's drive to the north, creating a very large pool of potential targets for the animal rights militants. Mr Jaubert said his adversaries were picking the wrong target. The Californian duck farm, operating under the name Sonoma Foie Gras, was free-range. Animals spent almost all their lives outside, he said, except for the final period of grain-feeding in air-conditioned buildings. "This is extremely good treatment, certainly compared to the way the big chicken producers behave with their animals," he said.

Mr Manrique, who comes from Gascony, the heart of duck country in south-west France, has been an ambassador for foie gras for years. "Force-feeding is really the wrong word," he told a group of cooking students in San Francisco a couple of years ago. "The geese see the food we offer them and run after us. They say, 'Give me more'."

Such remarks may not sit well with the "meat is murder" crowd, but science is beginning to show that he may not be entirely wrong. An article in the journal British Poultry Science in 2001 found "no significant indication that force-feeding is perceived as an acute or chronic stress by male mule ducks".

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