Lawmakers Pass Bill Banning Foie Gras Sales in NYC

The bill pitted animal activists against farmers and chefs.

Foie Gras

NEW YORK (AP) β€” New York City lawmakers on Wednesday passed a bill that bans restaurants and grocery stores from selling foie gras, the fattened liver of a duck or goose considered a culinary delicacy for centuries. The bill, which is expected to be signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, would forbid the sale of the French specialty starting in 2022.

Animal welfare activists had campaigned for a ban on the grounds that the methods used to produce foie gras are cruel, involving force-feeding a bird a corn-based mixture through a tube slipped down its throat. Farmers who produce foie gras β€” meaning fatty liver in French β€” say the birds are treated humanely and don't suffer during the fattening process.

The council vote was 42-6 for the final version of the bill that calls for a fine of up to $2,000 for each violation. With about 1,000 New York restaurants offering foie gras, top chefs did not take kindly to the news.

"This is idiocracy," tweeted chef David Chang of the famed Momofuku global restaurant chain, adding, "Stupid short sighted and a misunderstanding of the situation."

"I think a ban on foie gras is ridiculous," said James Beard Award-winner Ken Oringer, co-owner and chef at Manhattan's Toro tapas restaurant that serves dishes like foie gras torchons with buttermilk biscuits and foie gras katsu sandwiches. "Food choice is everything and the beauty of our country is that we can make the choice to eat what we want to eat."

He said he supports producers of foie gras in the Catskill Mountains about two hours north of the city. "I have been to their farms and they operate with the utmost integrity to their farm animals," the chef said.

The 200-acre Hudson Valley Foie Gras and the smaller La Belle Farm collectively raise about 350,000 birds for foie gras a year in a process that fattens the bird's liver up to 10 times its normal size. The resulting fatty livers connoisseurs say are as silken and rich as butter bring in $15 million a year β€” about a third going to New York City. Each liver retails for as much as $125.

The two farms had already lost the California market that represented another third of their sales. California banned the sale of foie gras in 2012. That law was challenged in federal court, but an appeals court eventually upheld it. Chicago banned foie gras in 2006; the ordinance was repealed two years later. Losing the New York market would be devastating, says Marcus Henley, the manager of Hudson Valley Foie Gras.

"We will not let this restriction on New Yorkers' freedom of choice go unchallenged in the courts, and we intend to file a lawsuit," Henley said. He did not say exactly when legal action would be taken.

The New York City ban could mean trouble for the two farms that are premier U.S. producers of foie gras, with New York as their prime market. The farms employ about 400 mostly immigrant workers whose jobs could be in jeopardy due to the loss of city business, in addition to area farmers growing corn for the feed and vendors selling other supplies.

As voted on, the bill "would prohibit retail food establishments or food service establishments from storing, maintaining, selling, or offering to sell force-fed products or food containing a force-fed product." Ariane Daguin, whose New Jersey-based company, D'Artagnan, is the main U.S. distributor for the two farms' product, said the ban was approved on a false premise β€” "that the process is inhumane."

She said such an assumption is not supported by practices at the farm, where the birds roam freely and are fed by hand every eight hours. The force-feeding begins when the ducks are fully grown, about 12 weeks after they're born. A worker inserts a 6" plastic tube into the duck's beak, squirting a soft mix of corn, soybeans and water to the top of the throat. They're fed for three weeks, then slaughtered.

"Not one council member has made any effort to learn about this process and all have refused to visit the farms to understand the process first-hand," Daguin said. "This vote is not constitutional and council members have been wrongly influenced by animal activists who are financing their political campaigns."

Matthew Dominguez, an advisor to the Voters for Animal Rights nonprofit that opposes foie gras production, countered that group supporters "applaud the city council for relegating the barbaric practice of force-feeding innocent ducks for foie gras to the history books."