Duck, Duck, Goes

Will This Be Foie Gras’ Last Christmas in New York City?

Legislation banning the sale of foie gras in New York City is set to take effect next year, spelling bad news for the city’s restaurateurs and local producers.

A symbol of French gastronomy may soon be banned in its biggest U.S. market. As of November 25, 2022, foie gras may become persona non grata at upscale restaurants and gourmet groceries in New York City. It all started in 2019, when the New York City Council passed a law banning the sale of “force-fed products or food containing a force-fed product,” on the grounds that force-feeding animals is – in the words of Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, who sponsored the legislation – an “inhumane process.” (Ms. Rivera has not responded to our interview requests.) The law, which passed by a vote of 42 to 6, imposes fines ranging from 500 to 2,000 dollars per violation.

New York City isn’t the first place to ban foie gras. Similar bans were enacted in Chicago (see boxout below) and California, with varying degrees of success. But in New York, the fight against force-feeding animals has a local connection: Most of the foie gras consumed in the U.S. is produced in Sullivan County, New York, less than two hours north of the Big Apple by car. Sullivan County is home to America’s two largest foie gras farms: Hudson Valley Foie Gras and La Belle Farms. The former was founded in 1983 at the initiative of an Israeli entrepreneur, and the latter in 1999… by former employees of Hudson Valley Foie Gras.

Those two farms employ about 300 people and support a network of grain suppliers and service providers in a rural part of the state where 16% of the population lives below the poverty line. “The food for the ducks is produced here, and wages are paid and spent here,” says Marcus Henley, operations manager at Hudson Valley Foie Gras. “Our farms have a very strong economic impact in one of the poorest counties in the state.”

Heavy Consequences

If the city’s foie gras ban goes into effect, there will be heavy consequences for both farms. “New York isn’t the only market for foie gras in the U.S., but it is by far the biggest,” says Marcus Henley. Roughly half of the 500,000 ducks he raises each year are force-fed to produce foie gras. The delicacy is consumed mostly at restaurants – over one thousand in New York City, according to calculations made by the producers before the Covid crisis. In addition to duck breast, duck leg, and duck confit, the farms also sell feathers for the textile industry, but foie gras is the core element of their business model. Without it they couldn’t compete with the massive duck farms in Indiana, California, and Pennsylvania, which produce the lion’s share of the 30 million web-footed birds raised nationwide each year.

Since 2019, the two Sullivan County farms and foie gras producers in Quebec have been engaged in a long battle against the New York law, and are supported by the New York State Restaurant Association and one of America’s top foie gras distributors, D’Artagnan. The New Jersey company, founded in 1985 by Ariane Daguin, daughter of French chef André Daguin, supplies gourmet meat products to restaurants and consumers. “Foie gras and duck currently represent roughly 15% of our business,” says Ariane Daguin. “If foie gras is banned in New York City, it won’t kill us, but it won’t be good for us either.”

Resistance from Producers

Foie gras producers and their supporters first tried to persuade the City Council members that their farming practices were acceptable from an animal-welfare standpoint. But to no avail. “We invited them to visit our farms or send representatives to see for themselves how the ducks are raised,” says Marcus Henley. “Nobody came.” After the vote, the battle escalated into an open conflict between New York City and state, with the state’s Farm Bureau taking the side of the producers. For a while, the producers were also counting on the support of the then state governor Andrew Cuomo. But his ignominious downfall (he resigned in August after sexual-harassment allegations) dashed their hopes.

The next act will likely play out in the New York courts. “One of our arguments,” explains Michael Tenenbaum, the lawyer for the foie gras producers, “is that a city or state in the United States does not have the right to ban the sale of a wholesome product made in another state or country on the grounds that it simply does not like the way it was produced. Such a ban violates the Commerce Clause in the U.S. Constitution.” Michael Tenenbaum is also representing the producers against the State of California, which banned the sale of foie gras in 2012. In 2015, a federal judge held that the California law infringed on federal laws regulating poultry products, and the sale of foie gras became legal again. But that decision was overturned in 2019.

Currently, it is illegal to sell foie gras in California, but the case established that it is legal for private consumers to buy online if the seller ships it from another state. “This is a small victory, but it’s nowhere near enough for my clients, because virtually all foie gras in America is consumed in restaurants,” says the attorney. A new decision is expected in the coming months, and the case could end up before the Supreme Court. Back in the Hudson Valley, Marcus Henley is determined to fight to the end. “We’re not going to give up, because this is our life.”

The Chicago Fiasco

Chicago became the first U.S. city to ban foie gras, following a vote by the City Council in 2006. But local restaurateurs, fearing the new law might lead to bans on other products such as veal and lobster, decided to resist and continued openly selling the product. One street vendor even made headlines after being caught serving foie gras-laced hot dogs! “The upshot was that we sold five times more foie gras in Chicago after the ban than before,” says Ariane Daguin. “The city was the laughing stock of the American gastronomy scene.” Less than two years later, the City Council repealed what former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley called “the silliest law that they’ve ever passed.”

Article published in the December 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.