Standing outside upscale restaurants with graphic pictures of force-fed ducks and dead, vomit-choked geese, the anti-foie gras campaign of local animal-rights group Voices for Animals is influencing consumption of fattened fowl liver in Pittsburgh -- in ways both intended and unintended.
"It's a luxury item and there's certainly no necessity that could justify it," says VFA member Michael Croland. "I think that for the most part here and elsewhere people won't accept gourmet cruelty."
Group volunteers stand outside targeted establishments, handing out literature about foie gras production. The process involves inserting tubes into the esophagus of a duck or goose to force-feed it two to three times a day, thus greatly increasing the size of the liver. Since their campaign of letter-writing, demonstrations and sending restaurant owners videos about foie gras production began in early 2004, the group claims 10 area restaurants have delivered verbal or written promises to stop selling the delicacy.
Many restaurant owners did not want to speak about the campaign. One successfully targeted by VFA, Toni Pais of Baum Vivant, says the anti-foie gras effort had the opposite effect -- for a while.
"We sold more when they were outside," says Pais. "People were curious." But Pais committed, via hand-written note, to take foie gras off the menu, saying the protesters were disturbing his customers.
The group is currently focused on Laforet in Highland Park and Isabela on Grandview in Mount Washington. Candice Zawoiski, campaign coordinator for VFA, says that Laforet refuses to meet with them.
"We don't always have" foie gras, says Michael Uricchio, chef at Laforet, adding that if a party requests foie gras, he will accommodate them. He has no plans to remove foie gras from the menu. "My number-one goal is preservation of our customer base," he says.
Kevin Hunninen, chef at Isabela, says foie gras won't be removed from the menu there, either. "It's not usually a huge seller," he says.
Across the nation, animal-rights activists have been targeting foie gras successfully. Currently, all domestically produced foie gras comes from one of two farms: Sonoma Foie Gras in California and Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York. Recently, California passed legislation to phase out production of foie gras by 2012. New York is considering making it illegal as well. But all the attention has had the opposite effect here too, at least temporarily: "Sales have never been higher than they are right now," says Michael Ginor, co-owner and co-founder of Hudson Valley. "A lot of that is due to animal-rights activists."
Ginor says foie gras ducks and geese are actually kept in much safer and healthier conditions than other food poultry, and that the birds accept and welcome the feedings. He also cites tests that reveal foie gras ducks' levels of stress hormones to be lower than ducks in the wild.
"There's no running away from it, no yells or yelps," he says. "We know the esophagus is not damaged; it's checked pre- and post-mortem."
It's that post-mortem part that will likely keep Voices for Animals active in the area.