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Chefs duck ban on foie gras in Chicago

Enforcing law a low priority

Doug Sohn, owner of a gourmet sausage store, proudly displayed the warning letter he got about the foie gras ban. (M. SPENCER GREEN/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

CHICAGO -- Five months after the city ordered restaurants to stop selling foie gras, some fancy restaurants and gourmet shops no longer offer the goose or duck liver delicacy, while others are flouting the ban, listing foie gras on their menus and, in one case, framing the city's warning letter.

Evoking Chicago's Prohibition-era past, when a password could gain entry into a speakeasy, at least one restaurant is rumored to be serving foie gras to customers who ask for the "special lobster" dish.

And one place has cleverly skirted the ban by offering foie gras as a complimentary item. (The city ordinance bans only the sale of foie gras.)

The city has sent out a smattering of warning letters, conducted one inspection, and has yet to levy its first fine, making it clear that it has little stomach for sniffing out violators of the nation's first ban on foie gras.

"We need to focus as much as possible on things that actually make people sick and kill people," said Health Department spokesman Tim Hadac. "Our mission is to protect human health and not the health of geese and ducks."

Hadac called the ban the department's lowest priority.

Foie gras was banned in Chicago because of what animal-rights activists say is the inhumane way geese and ducks are force-fed to plump up their livers. The penalty: a fine of at least $250. Mayor Richard M. Daley has called it the "silliest" ordinance the City Council has ever passed. And many restaurants have acted accordingly.

At one business, the owner has treated his warning letter as if it were from a celebrity praising a great meal. "I did frame the letter and put it up on the sales counter," said Doug Sohn, owner of Hot Doug's, a gourmet sausage store.

The Health Department said it has received just nine first-time complaints about an establishment -- each one prompting a warning letter.

"As much as some supporters of the law and animal-rights activists beat their chests over the issue, we frankly don't get a lot of complaints," Hadac said.

The city's one inspection ended without a citation because the restaurant, Bin 36, noted on its menu that the foie gras terrine was a complimentary addition to the wild mushroom confit salad.

What inspectors didn't ask, said executive chef and partner John Caputo, is whether the salad would cost as much if it didn't include foie gras. It wouldn't.

Activists, though, say the ban is working.

"Our supporters are going into restaurants, and we're told that they are not selling foie gras," said Gene Baur, president of Farm Sanctuary, a national farm animal protection organization.

But those supporters apparently are not going to restaurants such as Sweets & Savories, which continues to sell foie gras and has not been the subject of a single complaint.

"I kind of feel left out," joked the restaurant's owner, David Richards.

Alderman Joe Moore, the ordinance's chief sponsor, said he realizes the Health Department has more pressing issues, but he is dismayed to see restaurants flouting the ordinance.

"It evinces a certain degree of arrogance on the part of these establishments," he told the Chicago Tribune.