Judge orders foie gras be allowed in California: A chef's world after all?

The 2012 foie gras ban in California went too far in trying to micro-regulate USDA-approved ingredients, a federal judge ruled Wednesday. Unless the state appeals, gourmands have won the battle of the fattened duck, at least for now.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File
Foie gras is torched and made into a brulee at Sent Sovi in Saratoga, Calif., May 11, 2012. Foie gras lovers are rejoicing after a federal judge in Los Angeles blocked California’s ban on the sale of the fatty duck and goose liver. Judge Stephen V. Wilson on Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, permanently blocked the state attorney general from enforcing the law, which took effect two years ago.

Love it or hate it, foie gras is back on menus in food-crazy California, where the extra-rich livers of force-fed ducks and geese have been outlawed since 2012.

In a decision reverberating through America’s animal rights and culinary establishments, US District Judge Stephen Wilson ruled Wednesday that California, in essence, can’t micro-regulate ingredients allowed and licensed by the US Department of Agriculture’s poultry inspectors. The ruling applies to foie gras that crosses state lines, although it leaves intact a ban that California has placed on the production of foie gras within the state.

Judge Wilson also put his finger on the zeitgeist, at one point writing that foie gras is a topic that “impact[s] gourmands’ stomachs and animal-rights activists’ hearts.”

So far, the US Supreme Court has bypassed similar cases, meaning that, unless California appeals, the gourmands, at least for now, have won the battle of the fattened duck. Animal rights activists are left to ponder: At what cost?

California became the first place to ban foie gras in 2004, and the law took effect eight years later. Chicago also briefly banned the ingredient, but caved to the wails of foodies. Such bans are predicated on birds enduring what animal rights activists consider torturous force-feedings, making the resulting foie gras the “Abu Ghraib of poultry dishes,” as Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan wrote on Thursday.

“The decision can’t change the fact that foie gras, the diseased liver of force-fed ducks and geese, comes from blatant animal abuse,” Matthew Strugar, an attorney for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), told the San Francisco Chronicle.

To be sure, California often leads the way in exceeding federal rules on issues like pollution. But Wilson ruled that, when it comes to food ingredients, there are limits to how the states can regulate.

One issue not specifically addressed in the ruling may have to do with what Americans collectively consider cruel. That issue came up in a 2012 Anthony Bourdain “No Reservations” episode on the Travel Channel that showed the facilities of an eventual plaintiff in the case at hand: Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Ferndale, N.Y.

In the episode, ducks gallivanting in a large, clean facility were lined up for an extra force-feeding, even as ducks clamored around every human who entered the barnyard. While foie gras factory farms do exist, most of the ingredient consumed in the United States comes from small producers like Hudson Valley Foie Gras.

In 2010, Mr. Bourdain called the foie gras debate "an artificial issue," saying it picks on small, largely ethical producers while "every factory farm chicken that's ever gone to the Colonel is treated so incalculably worse."

The small number of US and Canadian farms producing foie gras have to abide by strong animal cruelty laws and are regularly inspected, says Marcus Henley, operations manager at Hudson Valley, in a Monitor interview. In that light, the California foie gras case came down to "the right to farm," he says.

"Groups in opposition to us don't like the end result, but ... there is too much attention paid to foie gras farming for people not to do a good job" caring for the birds, Mr. Henley says.

The history of foie gras in the US is surprisingly short. Prior to the mid-1980s, there was no regulatory framework for foie gras, meaning it was smuggled inside monkfish or something similar. But since that framework was installed in 1984, it’s been on the radar screen of animal rights activists, whose opposition has turned the ingredient into one of America’s most controversial ingredients.

Following this week’s decision, animal rights activists vowed their fight to ban foie gras isn’t over.

“A line will be drawn in the sand outside any restaurant that goes back to serving this ‘torture in a tin,’ ” Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA, said in a statement. “And whoever crosses that line identifies themselves with gluttony that cannot control itself even to the point of torturing animals.”

Meanwhile, many California chefs (some of whom have skirted the ban) rejoiced at times.

“Had 4 orders sold out in 6mins,” Comun Kitchen & Tavern chef Chad White tweeted, after announcing foie gras was back on the menu.

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