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San Francisco Foie Gras Scofflaw Defends Itself

| July 10, 2012
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Q: When is a California restaurant not a California restaurant?

A: When it’s on federal land.

That, at least is the reasoning behind the decision of the Presidio Social Club to serve foie gras in seeming defiance of the new state law that banned this delicacy starting July 1.

A worker weighs a fresh duck liver. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

Restaurant manager Maureen Donegan tells us that the restaurant is not subject to state or local jurisdiction because it is located on the Presidio Trust, a former U.S. Army Base now operated mostly as a national park.

The Social Club (which contrary to its name, has no members and is open to the general public) plans to begin with foie gras sliders on July 14, Bastille Day, which is a kind of French equivalent to Independence Day.

“There’s a lot of people that are upset that they are being denied that the right to do something as a business or as a consumer, and that is to consume a food…” said Donegan. “We throw a lot of parties in this restaurant, so… we said let’s celebrate independence and put some foie gras on the menu.”

Are all businesses on federal land exempt from state and local laws? Pretty much, said Donegan. Instead of San Francisco public health inspectors, the Social Club answers to federal ones. It doesn’t even have to compost food scraps in compliance with city ordinance, though it does so voluntarily, she said.

We wondered what the folks at the state attorney general’s office would have to say about all this. They are wondering, too, it turns out. “We have not looked into it,” said spokesperson Lynda Gledhill.

Enforcement of the foie gras law in San Francisco falls to the Animal Care & Control Department. Its director, Rebecca Katz, is also puzzling over the question of whether California law ends at the Presidio gate.

There are people who farm foie gras in a healthy way. It’s a natural inclination for a duck or a goose to gorge themselves.

–Maureen Donegan, Presidio Social Club

“The question is whether being in federal jurisdiction trumps state laws,” she said. “It’s not an unusual question to raise.” For example, it’s not clear whether federal or local leash laws apply in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, she said.

Defying the foie gras ban can trigger a $1,000 fine, but Katz hasn’t decided whether to take action in this case.

Whether or not the restaurant is within the letter of the law, it is certainly contradicting the spirit of the law, Katz argues. Foie gras is a pate made by force-feeding geese or ducks to fatten their livers.

“We do believe that the intention of that law was to curb animal cruelty practice,” Katz said. “I’m not sure there is a way to humanely force-feed an animal.”

As you might expect, Donegan differs. “There are people who farm foie gras in a healthy way,” she says. “It’s a natural inclination for a duck or a goose to gorge themselves.”

Already she has received some strongly worded phone calls and emails from animal rights activists, as well as many supportive calls. She has already notified park police that the restaurant expects a lot of visitors — some of whom may have a bone to pick.

This could be the most lively July 14 celebration ever in San Francisco.

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