US foie gras farmer fighting for acceptance

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Ferndale (United States) (AFP)

For more than three decades, Izzy Yanay has fought to win acceptance for US foie gras, using his Catskills farm to charm skeptical chefs and counter animal rights campaigners trying to ban the controversial delicacy.

"I'm proud of what I do," says Yanay, 68, an avid Francophile who emigrated to the United States in 1981 from Israel, where he also produced foie gras.

"Why do people run? Why do people breathe? That's what I do," he says.

By the hundreds every year, business people, restaurateurs, the simply curious and even politicians visit the Hudson Valley Foie Gras farm in Ferndale, a two-hour drive into the Catskill Mountains from Manhattan, New York.

There, vice-president Marcus Henley says the Moulard ducks -- a cross between the white Pekin and South American Muscovy -- are not ill-treated despite the furore about force-feeding that upsets so many in the United States.

"In 2004 it became very important for us to open our doors, show people the process and make their own opinion," says Marcus Henley, referring to the year California imposed the first US ban on foie gras sales and production.

California and the city of Chicago are the only jurisdictions to have imposed bans, although Chicago revoked its prohibition in 2008 and about a dozen US states have considered draft legislation to prohibit foie gras.

Hudson Valley ducks are fed by hand, with a tube and no more than they can digest, says Henley, whose company pays lobbyists to press his case with legislators, and lawyers to fight in the courts.

Yanay admits it costs "a lot of money... But without it we can't be in business."

He says that when he moved to the United States he had no idea that he would be the first to produce foie gras in the country that is known for hamburgers and hot dogs.

But in 1983, when Yanay first started shopping his product around to restaurants, no one wanted it -- not even French chefs, he recalled.

"You could have given it for free," he said.

"They weren't interested: 'We don't have the clientele for that. I can't pay the price. I don't see it on my menu. I don't really need it'," he quoted them as saying.

- 'Very easy target' -

Everything changed when he met Ariane Daguin, daughter of legendary French chef Andre Daguin, as she was about to launch gourmet food company D'Artagnan, which became the first purveyor of game and foie gras in the United States.

"She was able to actually push it, because she came to the restaurants, she talked to them in French. She was able to talk to them about cooking, which I could not. Everybody knew her father," says Yanay.

"They came with a foie gras tucked under their arm," remembers Daguin. "I hadn't been in France for seven years and it seemed exciting. I was quite touched."

She visited the farm and was won-over by their production methods, then embarked on a mission to get Yanay's foie gras accepted in the United States.

Little by little it started gaining ground in major restaurants, but at the beginning of the 1990s animal rights activists pounced. They looked to ban sales and production of what is, basically, specially-fattened duck liver.

"They can't go against chicken or beef. We're a very easy target," said Yanay.

Despite the troubles, Hudson Valley now has an annual turnover of $30 million and produces 360 tonnes (tons) of foie gras from Ferndale and another farm in the Canadian province of Quebec.

The Ferndale farm is home to nearly 150,000 ducks and uses the entire animal, from the meat to the bones and the feathers.

Since Sonoma Foie Gras in California closed in 2012, Hudson Valley has just one small US competitor.

It has developed spin-off products including in-house creation "foie'camole" -- a foie gras mousse with guacamole seasonings.

"Now everybody in the country knows what foie gras is, whether they like it or not," says Yanay, looking back over 34 years of good and bad publicity.

Nearing 70, he would like to hand the reins over despite lingering concerns about the economic landscape and regulatory fears.

"I'm looking at retirement, but I don't think this thing has to go when I go. It has to continue," he said.