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Jaundiced view of liver pâté?

10 April 2008 by

Foie gras is the food that divides the dinner table, and a recent surge in protests against restaurants has forced many to stop selling the controversial delicacy. Is there a future for foie gras on British menus? Kerstin Kühn investigates

Foie gras, whose name translates from French as "fat liver", is produced by the force-feeding of a goose or duck using a funnel attached to a long tube. The process causes the bird's liver to become enlarged, with an increased fat content. In medical terms, it develops a disease called hepatic lipidosis.

Anger over the moral aspect of this practice has grown in the past few years into an international campaign by animal rights activists to have foie gras banned on grounds of animal welfare.

In Britain in recent months, this has led to a surge of threats to, and attacks on, restaurants serving foie gras, forcing many to stop selling the controversial delicacy altogether. Restaurants including Midsummer House in Cambridge, Bearlands in Gloucester and, most recently, Beaujolais in Bath have been bullied into taking foie gras off their menus.

Adversarial tactics

But should restaurateurs have given in to the adversarial tactics used by animal rights activists?

Melanie Loram, legal executive at law firm Lawson-Cruttenden, which specialises in harassment cases, says they should not.

"What the activists are doing is, essentially, bullying and blackmailing, and this only works when operators acquiesce," she said. "While foie gras might be a controversial product, it is legal to sell it in the UK, so the restaurateurs aren't doing anything to break the law. It's a person's choice whether they want to eat foie gras or not, and this shouldn't be changed simply because not everyone agrees."

Matthew Mooney, owner of the Belle Epoque and Duke of Portland restaurants in Cheshire, who was advised by police to stop selling foie gras to avoid being targeted, agrees.

"I refuse to give in to violent activists," he said. "Foie gras is a delicacy that our customers enjoy. What's next? Veal? Lamb? Will we all have to be vegans soon?"

While ignoring activists might have worked for some, others have not been so lucky. A case in point is Midsummer House in Cambridge, which in February this year came under attack from the Animal Liberation Front (ALF).

The two-Michelin-starred restaurant was badly vandalised in an attack that, according to chef-patron Daniel Clifford, was the culmination of a series of threats, including anonymous letters and protestors demonstrating outside.

"A brick was thrown through one of the windows just before service, and the next day the restaurant was vandalised," Clifford said. "These people are extremists, and we were in a very dangerous situation that we couldn't win. We had to protect our staff and diners and, knowing what the ALF is capable of, we had no choice but to give in and take foie gras off the menu."

Indeed, bearing the safety of your staff and diners in mind is of vital importance, and Hamish Cameron Blackie, partner and employment specialist at solicitors Barlow Robbins, points out that every operator has a duty of care.

He said: "There is a degree of likelihood in regards to an employer's duty of care], and if operators can't foresee that an attack is likely to happen, they can't take steps to protect staff.

"However, if operators are the subject of a sustained campaign of violence, they have a duty of care towards both their staff and diners. They should warn them and, if necessary, alert the police."

Dangerous situation

This view is echoed by Loram, who says that the first point of call in a dangerous situation should be the local police.

"The police will be able to help and make sure that operators' premises are properly supervised," she said. "The other alternative is to take out an injunction under the Harassment Act, which can prevent certain types of people from entering the premises. However, this can be difficult when you are an isolated unit."

But animal rights activists don't seem to be the only force affecting the sale of foie gras. Glynn Purnell, chef-proprietor of Purnell's in Birmingham, said that his decision to take foie gras off his menu had nothing to do with protestors.

"Fewer and fewer of my diners were ordering foie gras, and it was a waste of my money to buy it," he said. "Whether diners are becoming more health-conscious or ethically aware, there's a definite trend away from foie gras."

So, while animal rights activists seem to be getting increasingly organised in their quest to stop operators from selling foie gras, shifting consumer tastes and a changing eating-out market could well have a more profound effect on whether the delicacy remains a fixture on restaurant menus.

Read more at www.caterersearch.com/foiegras

By Kerstin Kühn

E-mail your comments to Kerstin Kühn here.

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