NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
An icon of fine eating is under siege: The U.S. foie gras industry is in crisis.
On the surface, these should be the best of times for foie gras, which is French for "fat liver." Retail sales have been rising steadily for years. And a food once served only in a few fancy New York bistros can now be enjoyed in restaurants across the country.
But as the delicacy's popularity rises, so does its symbolic value. For animal rights activists, foie gras has become the "fur of food," another example of decadent cruelty.
To fatten a duck's liver, producers forcibly over-feed the duck through a tube, or catheter, placed down its throat. The duck is fed this way for a few weeks prior to harvesting.
Protesters say it's torture. Defenders call it farming.
Last fall, vandals poured cement into water lines at a California foie gras farm, causing $60,000 worth of damage. They scrawled "murderer" in bright red paint across a store co-owned by Guillermo Gonzalez, the Salvadoran immigrant who runs Sonoma Foie Gras.
Extremists even took pictures of Gonzalez's children and sent them to him, suggesting a terrifying possibility for violence.
If that weren't enough, the foie gras industry faces political trouble, too.
In February, the Department of Agriculture suspended importation of foie gras from France. And last month, the California state senate narrowly passed a bill to ban foie gras production within the state.
Between vigilante attacks, trade embargoes, and the possibility of domestic prohibition, one wonders: Is the goose cooked for foie gras in America?
5,000 years of fat
Foie gras is a versatile and tasty culinary tool, used in many luxuriously rich recipes. It is distinct from terrines and torchon, which are made from it.
It has been a luxury food for some 5,000 years, according to Michael Ginor, author of "Foie Gras: A Passion" (John Wiley, 1999).
It was found in ducks who naturally gorged themselves prior to migration, their swollen livers acting as storehouses for protein. When animal husbandry techniques are employed, though, a formerly natural process becomes wildly controversial.
On its Web site, the activist coalition Gourmet Cruelty calls force-feeding traumatic and confinement debilitating for ducks. (Foie gras farmers point out that the ducks' cages are four times larger than those used for most poultry.)
Citing a 1998 study of European farms, Gourmet Cruelty charges that accidental mortality in foie gras production is up to 20 times higher than on ordinary duck farms.
That's just wrong, says Ginor, the co-owner of Hudson Valley Foie Gras, the largest of three U.S. producers.
"The depiction is that the duck's esophagus is damaged, and the liver explodes," he says. "We know there's no damage to the esophagus because all of our birds are inspected both pre- and post-mortem."
What's more, with about one worker for every 300 birds -- a turkey farm might have 1 per 300,000, he said -- Ginor handles his expensive animals with care. "The accidental mortality rate of our birds is actually much lower than in large-scale poultry farming," he says.
As for "exploding" livers? The liver is what these farmers are trying to sell. If it exploded, they'd have no product.
Pitchforks and politicians
As pitchforks flare between farmers and activists, another kind of tussle is pitting Washington with Paris.
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In the late 1990s, the USDA certified 11 French foie gras producers for exporting to the United States. That ended decades of black market foie gras importation, in which the stuff was smuggled into the country inside wheels of cheese and the bellies of fish.
"At the time the French were certified, inspections were performed that determined their sanitation systems were equivalent," explains Steven Cohen, a USDA spokesman.
Those French methods haven't changed, but science has. In 2000, the U.S. developed new procedures to better predict and mitigate against possible contamination. But when the French were told to upgrade, they resisted, complaining the new rules were expensive and unnecessary.
In 2002, the Americans began threatening an embargo. Last year, the USDA decertified 4 of the 11 French producers, and in February of this year, it enacted a full import ban until the facilities meet the revised sanitation standards.
"When you begin to have doubts about system integrity, you have to step in," Cohen says.
Predictably, foie gras importers say they've been hurt badly by the spat.
"It's a drop in the water for big business, but it's a thunderstorm for us," says Ariane Daguin, co-owner of New Jersey-based D'Artagnan, the country's largest seller of imported foie gras.
Many in the pro-import camp say the disagreement is a matter of politics. (It is certainly not Iraq-related, though, since the food fight began long before the war and its Franco-American tensions.)
"There's a problem with disease control and food safety in America, but if you do something drastic you upset the big chicken producers," says Daguin. "Politicians must show consumers that they care about protection. So they say poultry in France is bad, or pork in Belgium is bad."
The great divide
Farmers or torturers? Consumer advocates or political schemers? The fault lines between Republicans and Democrats look miniscule in comparison.
But all this thinking about foie gras made me hungry. So I went to Per Se, the acclaimed gourmet restaurant here in New York's Time Warner Center.
Executive chef Jonathan Benno showed me around the kitchen, and explained the differences between the two dominant styles of foie gras. The American version is larger, with a bit more protein and a bit more blood than the French style. (His French-style foie gras comes from Canada.)
"The Hudson Valley ones are a perfect shape," says Benno, showing me racks of beautiful, plump livers. He sears or roasts them, or uses them in such preparations as foie gras poached in Sauterne and vanilla bean. He uses French-style livers for terrines and torchons.
"Foie gras is a very decadent luxury, an ingredient most people don't get to eat or cook with," he says. "But one of the reasons people go to restaurants like this one is to be able to experience that little bit of luxury, to taste that special kind of food."
He looks saddened just to think about not being able to cook with it.
The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.