Foie Gras Flap Leads to Vandalism

Special to The Times

A gastronomic war has erupted in this sleepy wine-country city over foie gras, a staple of haute cuisine that some see as a delicacy and others consider a symbol of animal cruelty.

Over the last month, animal rights advocates who object to the methods used to produce foie gras -- the fattened liver of a force-fed duck or goose -- have vandalized two homes, including one owned by well-known San Francisco chef Laurent Manrique, and have caused a flood in a 19th century adobe building, the oldest commercial structure in Sonoma.

The incidents are being investigated by law enforcement officials in Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties and by the FBI.

At issue is Sonoma Saveurs, a yet-to-open bistro in the adobe building that plans to offer, among many other items, foie gras -- French for “fat liver.”

Critics, including the American Humane Society, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and underground organizations such as the Animal Liberation Front, say producing foie gras involves “animal torture.”


The Web site of Bite Back, an animal rights magazine that printed two of the restaurant partners’ home addresses, posted statements -- “received anonymously” -- attributing the vandalism at the homes to “concerned citizens” and the flooding to “individuals horrified at the torture of ducks.” One statement says: “We cannot let this restaurant open.”

Sonoma Police Chief John Gurney, who described the attacks as a “sophisticated campaign of domestic terrorism,” said: “They’re trying to impose their beliefs on others through the use of force, fear and intimidation.”

Gurney said that more attacks are “quite possible.” One of the Web sites includes a statement that “the addresses and phone numbers of several people involved in the restaurant project were discovered” in the bistro attack.

Sonoma Saveurs is owned by Manrique, the French-born executive chef of San Francisco’s and Las Vegas’ Aqua restaurants, and two partners -- Guillermo Gonzalez, a Salvadoran immigrant who pioneered foie gras production on the West Coast, and French businessman Didier Jaubert.

Jaubert’s home in Santa Rosa and Manrique’s home in Mill Valley were vandalized two days apart in late July. In each case, the vandals put glue in keyholes and left messages painted in red throughout, including “End animal torture” and “Stop or be stopped.”

The same messages were discovered throughout the bistro -- which is across the street from a duck pond in Sonoma’s town square -- two weeks later.

In the middle of the night, vandals smashed through the bistro wall and caused damage estimated in excess of $50,000. They clogged drainpipes with cement and turned on the water valves, causing a flood that shut down an adjacent clothing boutique and jewelry store for a week.

Even though Manrique’s and Jaubert’s homes were targeted, critics on the Bite Back Web site clearly consider Gonzalez, who has been producing foie gras in California for 17 years, the real villain.

“The damage this will do to the plumbing symbolizes the damage done to the ducks’ digestive systems by force feeding them,” says one of the statements on the Web site.

Gonzalez, the statement continues, “deprives the ducks he tortures to make foie gras of water in which to preen and bathe. Now Guillermo will be sure to have a swim when he opens the door,” which the statement said would symbolize his “neglect for the birds’ desperate need of water.”

Chief Gurney said he believes that all three attacks were committed by the same people. “There are enough similarities for us to know that they are all related,” he said.

LaRae Quy, an FBI agent in San Francisco, confirms that the bureau is working with sheriffs in Marin, Napa and Sonoma counties to find the culprits, though she would not provide any details about the investigation.

Manrique, who was chef at San Francisco’s highly regarded Campton Place restaurant before taking over the kitchen at Aqua, said his wife woke up one morning in late July and was jolted when she stepped outside.

“She was holding our 2-year-old baby in her arms, went out to pick up the paper, and noticed that there was red paint everywhere on the house,” said Manrique, estimating the damage at more than $10,000. “They wrote things like ‘Go back to France’ on the walls and dumped acid on my car.”

Manrique said the vandals had left behind a videotape of his family inside the house that had been shot through a window.

“I came to America because it is the land of free speech,” he said. “But all of this, involving my family like this, is going way too far.”

Since then, he has installed a sophisticated security system in his home, Manrique said, on the advice of local law enforcement officials.

The chef said that, over the years, he has received several letters from animal rights advocates and that he is not “insensitive to some of the concerns they raise.” He said he stopped serving Chilean sea bass when he learned the species was endangered.

“But ducks are not an endangered species, and there is nothing that we do to them that is inhumane,” he said.

Not so, contends Cem Akin, a researcher with People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, who says foie gras production is inherently inhumane.

“As an organization, we are against the use of animals for food altogether, but foie gras is particularly egregious,” he said. “Someone grabs a duck, sticks a long metal tube down its throat, and forces food into its stomach three to four times a day just to make its liver 12 times its normal size. The poor animals are tortured to produce an unneeded delicacy.”

Akin said that enlarging a fowl’s liver is like introducing an illness. “Foie gras is no delicacy; it’s a disease,” he said. But he said that his organization had nothing to do with the attacks against the Sonoma Saveurs partners.

Gonzalez, 51, whose Sonoma Foie Gras is one of only three producers of the delicacy in the country and the only one outside New York state, said the animal rights groups don’t understand the industry, which he says “is not only humane, it’s entirely natural.”

He said he had become interested in producing foie gras when he read about ancient Egyptian culture as a young man in El Salvador.

The Egyptians, he said, discovered 5,000 years ago that migratory birds, such as ducks and geese, have the ability to store excess food as fat in their livers to be used as fuel for their extended travels.

“Domesticated ducks don’t migrate, so they don’t store that extra fuel in their livers without assistance, but they have the built-in capacity to do so,” he said. “We feed them whole corn kernels through a tube twice a day, but only during the last two weeks of their lives.”

The ducks, Gonzalez said, are slaughtered when they are about 16 weeks old.

The liver is sold as foie gras and the breast as magret de canard, which has a look and a consistency similar to those of beef.

Gonzalez said he sold about 60,000 pounds of foie gras to restaurants last year at $28 to $36 a pound. A typical restaurant portion is about 3 ounces, and is priced anywhere from $14 to $25.

His company produces only duck foie gras, he said, because it is “more flavorful” than the goose variety.

His ducks, he said, “live in a free-range setting and with plenty of water.” He points to results of an experiment published in England -- one of a handful of European countries that have banned foie gras production -- that concluded that forced feeding does not cause noticeable health effects or increased stress among the animals.

“Yes, we do insert a tube into the duck’s esophagus,” Gonzalez said. “It takes less than five seconds, and there is no suffering either during or after.”

Gonzalez fears that it will be difficult to win widespread acceptance of foie gras in the U.S.

“When some people think of duck, they think of Donald,” he said.