Back in the late 1980s, a small meat processing firm out West rolled out a “new” product that generated instant controversy: It was called Spotted Owl Sausage.

For those who remember, environmental groups had gone to court back then and filed lawsuits demanding that the thousands of acres of old-growth forests preferred by the owl be ordered off limits to logging, lest the bird’s surviving habitat be put in peril. That made the rarely seen raptor a symbol of the conflict between the proponents of development and the advocates for wilderness preservation.

USDA, when forced to rule on the legitimacy of the product’s labeling, invoked a classic bureaucratic escape clause by determining that the product couldn’t be marketed since it did not contain the proper percentage of actual spotted owl meat.

Of course, it had all been done as a spoof and a protest against eco-activists, and as an Endangered Species, it would have been illegal to actually source any spotted owl meat in order to comply with labeling regulations.

Now, a related development is taking place up in Canada, as a pair of intrepid restaurateurs in Quebec, Kim Côté and Perle Morency, have added a seal-meat burger to the menu of their popular bistro Côté Est, according to the National Post.

That alone is controversy enough, but they “decided to have some fun with the name,” as the Post phrased it, naming their new creation “The Phoque Bardot Burger.”  

If French isn’t your native tongue, it probably loses a little something in translation, but the name combines the French word for seal with the name of the famous French movie star and bikini model-turned-animal-activist Brigitte Bardot, well-known for her campaigning against Canadian seal hunting.

The Bardot Burger has become one of the restaurant’s top sellers, according to the story—only in this case, it actually does contain seal meat from the Magdalene Islands, which fits with the restaurant’s mission of showcasing the foods of eastern Quebec.

For that reason—and because customers love it—the two Quebecois restaurateurs are determined to keep the Bardot Burger on the menu. But Ms. Morency said they are considering dropping the Bardot name from the dish.

In calling it the Phoque Bardot Burger, “There was some provocation, but our intention was purely humorous,” she told the Post. “There was no malice.”

That was not the case with animal rights groups, and Morency said that she and her partner have received warnings and disturbing threats. She said they got phone messages calling them “crazy, inhumane,” even “assassins.”

“They can send us death threats, but we’re not allowed to serve seal?” she asked.

‘Teeth surrounded by blubber’

Outside of the humane aspects of the seal hunt, there does not appear to be a danger to the animals’ survival. Unlike the spotted owl, the seal population in Newfoundland, one of Canada’s Maritime Provinces, has risen to about 12 to 13 million animals, a fact confirmed by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which recently reported the coastal population of seals is at its highest level in more than 30 years.

That neutralizes the activists’ position, according to one commentator.

“These rapacious seals [are] slithering underwater all around the island, sucking up every piece of protein the sea has to offer,” wrote Rex Murphy (no relation), columnist for Canada’s National Post and a commentator on CBC Radio. “What, after all, is a seal? It is a set of teeth entirely surrounded by hydrodynamic blubber—an eating machine.”

Haven’t heard marine wildlife described in quite those terms before, I must say.

Complaining that “outsiders” who know nothing about Newfoundland, nor its people, have whipped up an anti-hunting frenzy, Murphy argued that economics and tradition ought to be enough to justify hunting animals he claimed are in no danger of extinction.

“The hunt is legitimate,” he wrote in a recent column. “It is no more cruel or messy than any other type of animal slaughter [ouch!]. “It is honest work, and produces useful, beautiful products.

“If even one Newfoundlander wants to harvest one seal to make a flipper pie or a sealskin hat, then on with the hunt.”

Of course, what activists fail to mention is that hunting of seal pups—source of the iconic scenes of natives and locals clubbing them on the ice—has been outlawed since 1987.

“The real debate is that there is a resource that is overabundant, and yet it is not accepted that this be exploited in a healthy, respectful way,” Morency said. “Eating seal meat is a way to participate in the solution to this overpopulation. The seals are going to be killed anyway, all the better if they are eaten.”

At Côté Est, that means first soaking the meat in milk, then seasoning it with a local concoction called sea pepper and topping it with a slab of foie gras, wild greens and some Saskatoon berries.

“People adore the seal burger,” Morency said. “It’s one of our best sellers; the majority of our European customers order the seal burger.”

And if it were ever introduced to The States, USDA would have no choice but to approve its fanciful name.

But that’ll happen right around the time the rest of us start speaking French.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.