Foie gras industry's goose cooked

NIS 150m. industry produces 400 tons annually; 600 families impacted by government decision.

March 19, 2006 07:08
foie gras 298

foie gras 298. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Last week the death knell was perhaps definitively sounded for a long European Jewish tradition and a thriving agricultural sector in Israel. Goose slaughterhouses and processing facilities in Binyamina and Petah Tikva told 200 workers they would be jobless by Pessah, as goose farmers too, brought their activities to a close, the Goose Farmers Association announced. "As of today [Wednesday] we're stopping," said goose farmer Yaakov Yosef, of Moshav Beit Yosef, who ran a farm with his two brothers and their families producing 60,000 geese annually. A government decision - which was finalized on February 22 when the High Court of Justice overturned appeals - forbids geese to be transferred to fattening facilities after March 15, and forbids the slaughtering of the fattened geese after April 15. Roughly 600 families in Israel depended on the sector for a livelihood, the association said, noting that Israeli goose farmers sold NIS 150m. worth of goose products yearly, about 60 percent of which were in the form of 400 tons of goose liver (foie gras). About half of the sales went to the domestic market and the other half were sold abroad. "Israeli goose products are the best in the world," said Yossi Levy, sales representative for Petah Tikva-based Foie Gras, which boasts exports worldwide, including Europe, Japan, the US, Thailand and Mexico. Such a statement may seem unbelievable given the fame and prestige of French foie gras - one of the foundations of Gallic culinary pride - but the French themselves make no effort to conceal the delicacy's origins in the country's ancient Jewish communities. Goose raising was a particular specialty of the communities in the Rhineland region of Alsace. A not-uncommon belief among French goose liver afficionados is that the Jews brought the tradition to Europe straight from the ancient Near East. Claudia Roden - in her definitive work The Book of Jewish Food - notes that several Ashkenazic classics, from rendered poultry fat (schmaltz) to chopped liver (an uncle of French pate), traditionally were based on the goose in the "Old Country." Smoked goose breast, sold in supermarkets throughout Israel, is often referred to as "Jewish bacon." "I wonder if goose fat will come back into fashion now that the goose-rearing areas of France have been found to have the lowest incidence of heart disease and its chemical analysis has revealed properties akin to those of olive oil," Roden wrote in her book. Although the goose's deep roots in Ashkenazic gastronomic history are certain, its future - in Israel, at least - is less clear. Foie Gras's founding family has its origins in Hungary, another country with a long tradition of goose liver production among both Jews and gentiles. Levy estimated that the supply of Israeli-produced goose products will run out within two months of the April 15 deadline. "Hotels and restaurants are under pressure. They feel that they're losing an important part of their menus," he said. Managers of Cavalier and Joy - restaurants in Jerusalem that serve goose products - said they opposed the traditional method of fattening geese, and that they supplied the product only due to customer demand. "I'm a French restaurant. That is what I make my living from. I have no option," said Cavalier manager Didi Ben-Arosh. Cavalier serves its diners roughly 10 kilograms of goose liver weekly, he estimated. Joy's manager said he sells only "small amounts" per week. "The clientele does not support it" in terms of the volume sold, he added. Staff at the Shoshani butcher shop, also on Jerusalem's Emek Refaim St., indicated that the store sells Israeli goose products "every day," but could not estimate the volume. Levy said that after domestic supplies are exhausted, foreign producers will pick up the slack, and Foie Gras will market goose products imported from abroad. "Naturally, we will continue to supply those who are interested in our products within the framework of the law," Levy said, lamenting the loss of jobs to overseas. Foie Gras's facility had employed 100 workers. Together with the Binyamina slaughtering and processing plant's closure, the cities of Or Akiva, Jisr az-Zarqa, Binyamina, Baqa al-Gharbiya, Wadi Ara, Petah Tikva and Kafr Qasem will all have a few more unemployed to handle. Meanwhile, Goose Farmers Association secretary Hai Binyamini said the Finance Ministry was refusing the industry compensation for fear of setting a precedent that could be applied to businesses closed down for breaking the law, such as polluting factories. Binyamini, however, rejected the analogy, stressing that "everyone agrees that polluting factories are a public safety hazard, while deciding on the proper method of fattening geese is a more complex moral issue." Animal rights activists and others opposed the traditional force-feeding method, called gavage in French, by which the geese receive the grain mixture through a tube straight into their stomachs. The method ensures the farmers a harvest of a larger liver, that also is enhanced in quality and flavor. Due to the material benefits gained from the method, as well as its general acceptance (darkan de-einashei be-khakh), various halachic authorities and academics have concluded that the practice does not fit in the category of cruel farming methods forbidden by Jewish law. In contrast, halachic authorities have rejected cruel methods for producing veal since they only affect the meat's appearance. The expert statement on the matter, prepared in 2002 by the Justice Ministry's own Hebrew Jurisprudence (mishpat ivri) research and consulting division, was ignored by the High Court in its rulings on the geese. "They decided against us without checking further," complained Foie Gras's Levy. Goose farmers who had been operating legally - and within moral bounds as they understood them - for many decades and often generations should not be forced to pay the price without any compensation when a country decides to change its values, Binyamini argued, noting that he himself is 57 years old and pessimistic about his future. The Finance Ministry confirmed that it opposed granting compensation, but said it would not explain its position until after a committee on the matter headed by Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry Director-General Raanan Dinor presents its conclusions. The committee is expected to present its recommendations to government ministers in the near future, the Finance Ministry said. Levy believes the sector did not push hard enough to present its case to the authorities and the Israeli public. "If we had a better lobby, better connections, this wouldn't be happening," he said, expressing confidence that ways could be found to improve the fattening method to make it more comfortable for the geese. "People also say that kosher slaughtering and milk-fed veal are inhumane, but they attacked us." Goose rearer Yosef expressed hopes that the post-election government could be convinced to repeal the decree against his family's livelihood. "We'll protest in front of the Agriculture Ministry, we'll scream 'injustice' so that they'll help us. If we didn't have hope, we wouldn't go out to struggle," he said. Binyamini was less optimistic, noting that the sector is being destroyed to the last gosling and egg-laying female. "There is no hope of cancelling the decision. We don't have the emotional strength," he said.

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