The Final Fight for Foie Gras in the US

December 5, 2019 Updated: January 8, 2020
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NEW YORK—Marcus Henley dipped his rubber boots into a pan of clear disinfectant before stepping into a white brick building. He walked down a set of stairs to a wooden door that creaked as he opened it. A sound like hard, pattering rain came pouring out.

It wasn’t rain, but rather the sound of 8,000 ducklings, all about seven days old, waddling around on wood shavings. They’re specially bred moulard ducks, raised for their fatty livers, or foie gras, a controversial French delicacy.

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Thousands of ducklings share space inside a barn, kept at 90 degrees Fahrenheit, at Hudson Valley Duck Farm in Ferndale, New York, on Dec. 15, 2017. (Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s controversial because the ducks are force-fed to make their livers suitably fatty. Animal rights groups call it inhumane.

“Jamming any pipe down the throat of a struggling animal is always going to be a cruel and dangerous process,” said Ashley Byrne, a spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “The force feeding is also extremely uncomfortable for the animals.”

Henley, who has worked for more than 40 years in the foie gras business and now manages the Hudson Valley Duck Farm in upstate New York, picked up one of the ducklings and pointed to its throat. “The lining of their esophagus is very different from ours,” he said. “It’s very hard and durable.”

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Marcus Henley, manager of Hudson Valley Duck Farm, holds a young duckling as he explains the process of raising the ducks in Ferndale, New York, on Dec. 15, 2017.
(Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images)

Its digestive tract is different, too, with a sack at the bottom of the esophagus for storing food before it goes to the gizzard to be ground up. Henley’s farm has worked with a kosher project in which Jewish rabbis inspect the sack to make sure it’s not damaged by the plastic feeding tubes.

Three times a day, workers feed the ducks a corn mixture through the tubes. The tubes measure 6 inches, though in the past the farm has used 9-inch tubes. Each feeding lasts about four seconds. This regimen starts when the ducks are 12 weeks old and continues for three weeks, at which time the livers are harvested.

Henley said ducks don’t have teeth and they swallow food whole naturally. In his opinion, the ducks don’t suffer.

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A worker force-feeds a duck at Hudson Valley Duck Farm in Ferndale, New York, on Nov. 7, 2019. (Catherine Wen/The Epoch Times)

NYC Ban

On Oct. 30, 2019, the New York City Council passed a bill to ban the sale of foie gras in the city, effective 2022. Mayor Bill de Blasio signed it into law on Nov. 25, 2019.

New York is the final battleground for the foie gras industry in the whole country. It’s one of the largest markets for foie gras, especially after the delicacy was banned in California.

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David Waltuck, chef at Chanterelle restaurant in New York City, holds a dish with a piece of foie gras on potato risotto, on Dec. 1, 2006. (Stan Honda/AFP via Getty Images)

Henley and others in the industry aren’t ready to surrender. Backed into a corner, they’re putting all their energy into this do-or-die fight.

The fight isn’t just about this one delicacy, said Marco Moreira, executive chef of Tocqueville, a high-end French restaurant in New York City. “What will be the next thing that they’re going to outlaw? So we’re not allowed to eat veal or suckling pig? Or what about how lobsters are treated? They’re cooked alive,” he said.

For him, it’s about freedom of choice.

The Last Stronghold

Two of the largest foie gras farms in the United States are Hudson Valley Duck Farm and La Belle Farm, both in Sullivan County, New York.

When California banned the sale of foie gras, it put the only producer in California out of business. And it took 20 percent of Hudson Valley’s sales.

New York City accounts for another third of Hudson Valley’s sales. If the ban takes effect as planned, “then it gets very difficult to continue as a business,” Henley said.

“If Hudson Valley goes under … foie gras production in the U.S. is pretty much over,” said Michaela Desoucey, author of “Contested Tastes: Foie Gras and the Politics of Food,” in an interview with The Epoch Times.

“And I don’t see anybody wanting to start up a foie gras farm because of how political it is.”

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An employee checks on the ducks at Hudson Valley Duck Farm December 15, 2017 in Ferndale, New York. (DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images)

Sullivan County is one of New York’s poorest counties. It depends economically on Hudson Valley and La Belle, not only for the jobs at the farms, but also for the jobs at supporting businesses, including their suppliers.

The county also has a major drug problem. It has the third-highest number of emergency room visits due to opioid overdose per capita, compared to all counties in New York state, according to the New York State Opioid Annual Report 2018.

The farms help finance local health centers that provide free treatment to addicts. Kurtland Longa, a long-time worker at the Corona Help Inc., said if La Belle—one of its big supporters—closes down, “It’s going to be a very large struggle for us.”

“We’re real supportive with [La Belle] in return,” he said.

Three Years to Adapt

The three-year grace period before the ban goes into effect is meant to give the farms time to change their business models and survive.

Speaking for PETA, Byrne said that “businesses have always had to adapt to keep up with our changing ethics and this is no different.”

New York City Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, who sponsored the bill to ban foie gras, said in an email to The Epoch Times that she feels three years is “sufficient to allow these farms, which produce a wide variety of other duck products, to increase production and develop business opportunities in other regions and states.”

While Hudson Valley does sell other parts of the duck and dabbles in chicken processing, Henley said foie gras is the heart of the business and it can’t be replaced. The farm would have to compete with well-established companies in the other industries.

“When you’ve done one thing, or primarily one thing, for the period of time that we have, three years is not a long time to try to find a new way,” he said.

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A tub of foie gras being graded and cleaned rests on a preparation table at Hudson Valley Foie Gras August 17, 2006, in Ferndale, New York. (Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)

When California first approved a ban on foie gras in 2004, it gave a grace period of more than seven years before the ban would take effect. California’s 15-year struggle with the issue may give an idea of what New York is in for.

Legal Battles and ‘Duckeasy’ Dinners

After a grace period of 7 1/2 years, in 2012, the ban took effect in California. But in 2015, after years of legal appeals from the foie gras industry, a district judge ruled that the ban violated federal law.

The judge decided that the federal Poultry Products Inspection Act should govern the methods of foie gras production, and state law couldn’t supersede it.

Foie gras experienced a renaissance in the state—until the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals once again upheld the ban in 2017. Animal rights activists had been just as tenacious as the industry advocates in their legal appeals.

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Duck livers for sale at a market in Perigueux, France, on Nov. 19, 2008. (Patrick Bernard/AFP via Getty Images)

In January 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an industry appeal on the matter, effectively upholding the ban in California.

But Attorney Michael Tenenbaum, who represented industry players in California and is preparing for the legal battle in New York, said the legal challenge against the California ban is still ongoing in the California federal court.

Meanwhile, since no case has yet been filed in New York, Tenenbaum wouldn’t comment further on the approach that he and his clients will take there, except to say that “the New York City ban is even more legally flawed than California’s.”

Rivera’s office said it can’t comment on the legal challenge since she has “not received any notice regarding a lawsuit.”

Even if the legal fight fails and the ban takes effect, it will be difficult to enforce.

Under the Table

In both California and Chicago (which had a ban in place for two years before it was lifted), many chefs continued to serve the banned dish.

Some chefs gave it away for free, since it’s specifically selling it that’s illegal. Some held underground “duckeasy” dinners reminiscent of the speakeasies during prohibition times. Some sold foie gras using codewords.

In one restaurant, regular customers would know to order the special “lobster dish.” In another, it was “turtle soup,” said Desoucey.

Ken Frank, head chef at La Toque in Napa, California, decided to give fois gras away for free as a form of protest. Servers would bring customers free dishes of fois gras accompanied by cards explaining the meaning behind the gift.

“I thought that by giving away foie gras and being able to prove that I wasn’t charging for it, which I could do, that that was a very good form of protest,” Frank said.

“I imagine chefs in New York will mobilize the same way,” he said. “I imagine they’re disappointed as I am.”

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Ducks at Hudson Valley Duck Farm in Ferndale, New York, on Dec. 15, 2017. (Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images)

As far as he knows, no one is comprehensively enforcing the ban in California. Desoucey found, while researching for her book on foie gras, that in Chicago, city authorities depended on diners to call in and report violations.

City health inspectors had other priorities and weren’t systematically enforcing the ban, according to Desoucey.

In California, animal-rights activists have taken some initiative to monitor restaurants and bring action against individual violators.

Byrne said PETA activists in New York “will certainly alert authorities if we do find out about any violations. I would hope that businesses would respect the law though.”