July 14, 2020 update: A federal judge today overturned California’s ban on serving foie gras, and allowed restaurants to serve the dish—as long as the foie gras was produced in another state and delivered by a third-party service.
October 30, 2019 update: The New York City Council voted to ban the sale of foie gras, starting in 2022.
Since Sergio Saravia’s childhood, the French delicacy known as foie gras, or “fatty liver,” has played a key role in his life. The president of La Belle, a duck farm in Sullivan County, New York, Saravia says he arrived in the United States from war-torn El Salvador in 1989, thanks to Hudson Valley, the foie gras farm that then employed his father.
His dad was already stateside when Saravia, his mother, and other relatives, still in Latin America, attempted to flee the violence in their native country.
“We were robbed and severely beaten,” said Saravia, 38. “We came seeking asylum but weren’t granted it.”
His father’s employer stepped in and provided Saravia and his family with the paperwork needed for them to relocate to New York.
“They petitioned for us to come,” said Saravia, an immigration attorney as well as La Belle’s president. “They saved our lives.”
Now Saravia is striving to save La Belle and neighboring Hudson Valley in light of a proposed New York City foie gras ban he fears could cause the demise of both farms. The bill would amend New York City’s administrative code to bar the sale of cuisine, such as foie gras, produced by “force-feeding birds,” a process known as gavage. Violators could face a fine of up to $1,000 and a year’s imprisonment.
It’s possible the bill could come up for a vote as soon as this month; if it passes, the bill could lead La Belle and Hudson Valley to lose a third of their business, roughly the amount they get from New York City. This is a potential death knell for the two enterprises, which employ 400 workers altogether. They are the nation’s two main foie gras producers; a third and smaller such farm, Au Bon Canard Foie Gras, operates in Caledonia, Minnesota.
“This legislation would prevent them from their selling their product of cruelty,” said Matt Dominguez, political advisor for Voters for Animal Rights (VFAR), which supports the ban. “People refuse to eat it. Eighty-one percent of New Yorkers say they support a ban on the sale of foie gras. They support the passage of this bill.” [Groups opposed to the foie gras ban dispute the findings of that poll, noting that leading language in some of the questions may have led New Yorkers to support the ban. Those groups point to another survey that finds 52 percent of New Yorkers oppose the ban—a poll that, in turn, supporters of the ban reject the accuracy of.]
The would-be foie gras ban comes during an era when the animal welfare movement has made significant strides nationally. In 2006, Chicago became the first major U.S. city to prohibit sales of foie gras, although the city overturned its law two years later. California banned the delicacy in 2012, but has followed a whipsawing course to implementation: The law was reversed in 2015 and reinstituted in 2017; since the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to the legislation in January, the Golden State’s foie gras ban remains intact.
In addition to foie gras, California has implemented other animal welfare laws related to the food industry. In 2018, voters passed Prop. 12, legislation that will prohibit cages for laying hens by 2022 and, in the meantime, sets space standards for caged hens, sows, and veal calves. The state has also taken on the fur industry: In September, Governor Gavin Newsom signed the Wildlife Protection Act of 2019, which prohibits commercial or recreational fur trapping on public and private lands. Legislation banning the sale of fur in the state awaits Newsom’s signature as well. If he signs, California will become the first state in the country to institute a fur ban.
For years, fur and foie gras have been among the most contentious issues in the animal welfare debate. Foie gras is far from the only cuisine subjected to bans—horse meat, shark fins, beluga caviar, and unpasteurized milk are some of the foods barred in numerous states due to concerns over ethics, animal endangerment, or public health. But foie gras producers say they have been unfairly targeted. They argue that the foie gras sector is “low-hanging fruit” because the industry is small, it is linked to the elite, and misinformation has skewed public perception of duck farms.
“Whatever someone portrays us as, [consumers] are taking as true,” Saravia said. “When they say we mistreat the ducks, when they just judge you without knowing you, it’s an insult.”
Saravia pointed out how the foie gras legislation belonged to a package of New York City animal welfare bills seeking to restrict everything from fur sales to horse carriage rides.
“They backed off the fur, they backed off the horse carriage rides,” he said. “Now there’s this big push towards us with misconceived information.”
He particularly resents that New York City council members, including the foie gras bill’s main sponsor, Carlina Rivera, haven’t toured his farm to observe how the birds are treated. Rivera declined Civil Eats’ request for comment but has previously expressed concerns that the duck farms might stage or fake how they normally operate when they have guests.
Ariane Daguin, CEO and founder of D’Artagnan, a purveyor of gourmet meat and game, challenged this claim.
“Those activists are saying the farm will be fabricated, but on a farm where you have thousands of ducks, how can you fake stuff?” Daguin said. “Go there unannounced. Just knock on the door. Don’t give any notice. I don’t know how they think you can hide things.”
When North Carolina State University sociology professor Michaela DeSoucey toured duck farms while researching her 2016 book Contested Tastes: Foie Gras and the Politics of Food, she braced for the worst. Instead, she said, “I saw a bunch of ducks in wooden pens twice a day get a metal tube inserted in their throats to get a calibrated mush of corn and vitamin mixes. It’s not so bad.”
Animal activists disagree with this assessment, asserting that the very use of pipes to fatten ducks’ livers constitutes abuse. “Force feeding them for the purpose of diseasing their liver is the definition of pain,” Dominguez said. “Force feeding is cruel; it causes damage to the esophagus. The enlarged liver puts pressure on other organs, prevents the ducks’ air sacs from being able to inflate properly, and causes stress and pain and would result in death.”
But DeSoucey maintains that the most egregious treatment of animals consumed for food occurs at factory poultry farms run by corporations such as Perdue and Butterball, which denied her requests to visit, she said. [Update: Perdue says that it has no record of DeSoucey making this request, but after the publication of this article, a company spokesperson invited both her and Civil Eats to visit after the publication of this story. Perdue also points out that it has worked with animal rights groups like Mercy for Animals to lead the way in making factory farm reforms.] Meanwhile, chicken has never been more popular with Americans, so why is foie gras such a lightning rod?
“I went into this issue over 10 years ago asking why are people getting so fired up, why there’s so much pain on both sides, when people eat so much more chicken and turkey,” DeSoucey said.
She found that “foie gras symbolizes the worst thing we do in animal agriculture.” That symbolism, she argues, doesn’t necessarily reflect reality.
Is Foie Gras Cruel?
In Grilled, her new book about factory chicken farms, Mercy for Animals President Leah Garcés says that people don’t react as strongly to abuse against chickens as they do to mistreatment of other animals because birds look so dissimilar to humans. Foie gras advocates, in contrast, argue that the public primarily objects to the feeding tubes given to ducks because they are overly empathetic to the animals. They’re imagining what it would be like to have a tube in their throats, ignoring that ducks and humans have anatomical differences.
“Ducks and geese don’t have gag reflexes,” said DeSoucey, a claim that animal rights activists deny. “They don’t have nerve endings in their throats like we do. In the wild, they swallow rocks and sticks. So, some of it [the foie gras opposition] is anthropomorphism. We think, ‘Oh my God, that would hurt so much. That’s so painful.’ We think of ourselves choking on something, but ducks and geese have a different biology. This doesn’t hurt them in the way we think it would hurt us.”
The birds do not have teeth and swallow their food whole. Because they are vulnerable to predators in the wild, ducks consume food quickly, storing large quantities at once thanks to an esophagus that widens as they feed. At foie gras farms, “We mimic what the bird does in nature,” Saravia said. “The duck actually dictates how we follow the program. We do not shove tons of feed down his throat. We feed the bird three times a day, and whatever the bird is able to digest, we drop in the crop.”
Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States, objects to the idea that foie gras can be produced without abuse. Wild ducks, for example, do not eat to the point of suffering adverse health effects, he said.
“If you have to shove pipes down an animal’s throat to cause them to have liver disease, it is clearly cruelty to animals,” he said.
He also disagrees that the public is misinformed about duck farms, asserting that consumers have the right take: “Foie gras is barbaric treatment of ducks and geese.”
California’s foie gras ban marked a positive change in the food industry, and the New York City bill could continue the downward trajectory of a “cruel and inhumane industry,” Balk said.
He predicts that foie gras will be legislated away just as cockfighting and dogfighting have been. “It used to be legal to kill horses for meat,” he said. “It used to be legal to confine egg-laying hens in cages.” Practices that are not legislated away will simply die out in the court of public opinion, Balk said, naming the closure of the Ringling Bros. Circus and the declining attendance at SeaWorld following the “Blackfish” exposé as examples.
“If you look at the holistic view,” Balk said, “our society is demonstrating more than ever that businesses can no longer maintain a status quo that’s cruel to animals, and that’s exactly what foie gras production is.”
Daguin says that treating ducks well is the key to good foie gras, however. Originally from Gascony, France, she has played a pivotal role in the U.S. foie gras movement. In 1984, she began to introduce American chefs, accustomed to buying canned foie gras from Europe, to fresh versions of it produced in the U.S.
“I’ve been buying foie gras from Hudson Valley for the past 35 years, and the ducks are not stressed,” she said. “If you do stress the animals, you’re not going to get a good result. The liver is not going to be big.”
She noted that each feeding of a duck or goose takes roughly five seconds and generally the same individuals conduct the feedings to prevent the birds from becoming anxious. The three daily feedings take place over about an 11-day period, she said.
“The chickens on factory farms have much more stress,” Daguin added. “I am against factory-farmed chicken. I know it’s bad for your health and bad-tasting and bad for the contract workers who don’t have a decent wage. Logical thinking should be that if you want something to be banned, ban factory-farmed chicken.”
It’s not surprising that animal rights activists and food industry professionals would clash over foie gras. What stands out, though, is that members of the medical community don’t agree on whether or not this delicacy is harmful. In August, Dr. Holly Cheever, a veterinarian and vice president of the New York Humane Society, told the New York Times that the ducks and geese consumed for foie gras are in liver failure and have difficulty breathing by the time their organs are harvested. The average duck liver weighs about 90 grams, but the average foie gras duck’s liver weighs 800 grams.
Conversely, Dr. Gavin Hitchener, director of the Cornell University Duck Research Laboratory, told the Times that the ducks are “physiologically normal” when slaughtered. A 2006 research paper that Daguin mentioned supports this opinion. The study contends that the livers of foie gras ducks return to regular size when over-feeding is interrupted, suggesting that steatosis, or fatty liver, in these animals is reversible. The extent of liver disease in foie gras ducks isn’t the only point of contention among veterinarians and researchers. Doctors don’t even agree on whether ducks have a gag reflex, with those in the foie gras camp arguing that they don’t and opponents to the cuisine arguing that they do.
With more than half of the New York City Council supporting the foie gras ban, it’s clear that elected officials share the view that it is cruel. Should the city prohibit it, restaurants stand to lose as well as foie gras farms. The Times reported that roughly 1,000 New York City dining establishments serve foie gras, which retails for around $25 to $35 for an entree. Beyond any financial gains restaurants make from preparing foie gras, chefs who serve French food may view a ban as culturally insensitive and an infringement on their craft.
Hugue Dufour, the chef at M. Wells restaurant in Queens, says he’s saddened when he considers the possibility of a foie gras ban.
“New York will lose a lot gastronomically,” he said. “You lose so many flavors that you couldn’t get otherwise. I’m not serving tons of foie gras, but it’s all about diversity.”
Dufour has lived in the city for 11 years but is originally from Québec, Canada, where he grew up eating foie gras.
The French typically eat the cuisine on special occasions, according to DeSoucey, who coined the term “gastronationalism” in her book about foie gras. It describes how food production, distribution, and consumption work to emotionally attach consumers to a country. In 2006, France officially declared foie gras part of its “protected cultural and gastronomic heritage.” But the food originated in Egypt, where people overfed waterfowl as far back as 2500 B.C. in quest of animal fat. From there, gavage spread to Greece and the rest of Europe.
“It’s not an everyday food,” DeSoucey said of foie gras. “It’s something you eat to celebrate New Year’s, a birthday, a wedding. The French people I interviewed get fired up about it because it’s such a symbol of something greater than food. The best American equivalent is really the Thanksgiving turkey. Turkeys are treated horribly in most turkey production, but that doesn’t stop people from eating Thanksgiving turkey. That’s the power of food.”
Dufour said that foie gras ducks and geese are treated much more humanely than other animals consumed for food because of the controversy surrounding it.
“In terms of quality and humane production, I don’t think there’s any equivalent in the U.S.,” he said. Animal welfare activists “abuse the strong image of food being pushed down the throat. It’s a little sad that none of the elected officials dare to visit the farms to see these animals are as happy as they could be.”
VFAR’s Dominguez believes the opposite is true and argued that if he fed a dog or cat until the animal suffered liver or digestive failure, he would be arrested for animal cruelty.
“Foie gras has been something we’ve been fighting against for decades,” he said. “We’re not picking on them [the foie gras industry]. We’re standing up for animals who have been picked on by them.”
He also balks at the notion that, since the foie gras industry is small, animal activists should overlook their concerns with it and focus on factory poultry farms. “We go after all types of animal cruelty,” Dominguez said. “This idea that we don’t work on other issues—it’s laughable. It’s like asking, ‘Why would you work on breast cancer when you have children dying of leukemia?’”
Enforcement May Be Difficult
If New York City prohibits foie gras, the new law could be hard to enforce. DeSoucey, who lived in Chicago during the city’s ban, said that restaurants found ways around it. They mislabeled foie gras in kitchens and misidentified it on menus, she recalled.
“Chefs—they’re a stubborn bunch of people,” she said. “They pride themselves on being assholes. They don’t like to be held in by rules, and they didn’t like the idea of the Chicago City Council, who doesn’t know anything about food, telling them what to do. A bunch of chefs formed this underground network of ‘duckeasys’ serving foie gras to try to raise money to appeal the ban. It was a way to thumb their noses at the city.”
In addition to the chefs who flouted the law, DeSoucey said the ban was difficult to enforce because the health department lacked the resources to devote much time to finding violators. “Inspectors—they couldn’t care less about foie gras,” she said. “They’re looking for listeria. They’re looking for things that kill people.” The task of catching restaurants in the act of serving it largely fell on members of the public who would have to visit a restaurant, know foie gras well enough to spot it on a plate, and care enough about the issue to contact the city. Some animal rights activists did take the time to report offenders, DeSoucey said.
In January, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that defiant California restaurants continued serving foie gras well after the state ban took effect. Diners can also find the illegal shark fin soup at restaurants there, National Geographic reported early this year. Hence, a foie gras ban in New York City doesn’t necessarily mean it will disappear, though Dominguez said he believes most restaurants will follow the law, if it passes.
Should the foie gras ban take effect, Daguin said that it could have ripple effect. She wonders which foods will be banned next.
“I understand banning endangered species,” she said. “I totally understand that, but forbidding meat is limiting and very dangerous.”
She doubts the food industry will ever be the same, and chefs particularly will feel the difference.
“It will be like a painter who has no shade of blue to paint with,” she said. “He would be missing the one color. You would have a piece of art that will never have that specific blue color. You can live without it, but you’re missing it. That would be a big shame.”
LaBelle Farm is still reeling from California’s foie gras ban, which put the state’s only foie gras producer out of business. From New Yorkers, Saravia said he’s received considerable support as he tries to stop the proposed foie gras ban from taking effect there, he said.
“If we lose, we might end up not being able to pay for our overhead costs or our workers and lose our company,” he said. “That’s why we’re trying to take this bill off the table. It will be very, very difficult if it passes.”
This article was updated to reflect the fact that a two-pound liver retails for around $125, but a restaurant’s entrée of foie gras would cost around $25 to $35.