On January 7, 2019, the United States Supreme Court upheld California’s ban on foie gras.
The law banning foie gras was drafted in 2004 and stated that the delicacy would be banned from restaurants in California due to the method by which it is obtained. Foie gras, or “fatty liver,” is the result of overfeeding ducks corn until their livers become enlarged. In some countries, the birds are overfed with a feeding tube, a process called gavage. Gourmet chefs across the globe use foie gras to make luxury meals for patrons.
While the law was enacted in 2004, it wasn’t officially put into place until 2012. From 2012 until 2015, the law prohibited foie gras from being served at restaurants. However, in 2015, the U.S. District Court for California’s Central District reversed the ban, claiming that the law was unconstitutional. For the last four years, chefs and restaurants have been able to use the ingredient at will.
In 2019, the law was once again called into question and the ban was put back into place. The court refused to hear appeals from various producers of foie gras, thereby leaving the ban intact.
Public opinion on the subject has been split. Animal rights activists say that foie gras is inhumane, and organizations like PETA have supported the ban. In 2015, PETA’s president and cofounder, Ingrid Newkirk, published a graphic piece in the Huffington Post detailing what happens to ducks when they’re force-fed corn until their livers swell to unnatural sizes. She explained how the ducks’ gag reflex can lead to injury during force-feeding and how it’s possible for the birds to choke on their vomit. She also said that investigators have witnessed ducks trying to flee farmers to avoid being force-fed.
Animal rights activist groups have also taken the issue to court. In 2013, the Animal Legal Defense Fund won a case against California restaurant La Toque, which had been selling foie gras. The restaurant later appealed the case by saying the distribution of foie gras was a free-speech issue.
Opponents of the ban, on the other hand, think foie gras gets a bad rap. In 2015, Trevor Baker of the Guardian spoke with food law expert Baylen Linnekin, who defended foie gras, arguing that it can be obtained ethically.
“Force-feeding is not an ‘ingredient’ of foie gras, since foie gras can be produced without resorting to such cruel methods,” he told Baker.
Baker also spoke with Eduardo Sousa, a farmer who keeps his ducks on a large, safe property with no cages or force-feeding. Sousa’s farm has an abundance of food, which allows the ducks to indulge in food until their livers enlarge naturally.
Other opponents of the ban argue that the force-feeding process has been misrepresented by animal rights activists and is not actually inhumane.
In Esquire, John Mariani argued that ducks aren’t confined to tight spaces on farms. He added that the gavage takes only six to eight seconds and that the animals neither attempt to escape nor are tortured or gagged when the feeding takes place.
While touring the Hudson Valley Foie Gras farm, Mariani spoke with Dr. Walter K. McCarthy, the former president of the New York Veterinary Medical Association. McCarthy said that a duck’s liver reverts back to its original size after the force-feeding process, and there is no damage to the organ at all.
The fight isn’t over for foie gras producers and supporters. Nation’s Restaurant News spoke with Michael Tenenbaum, the attorney representing groups opposing the ban, who said that the case will be brought to a federal court. Until then, the ban will remain in effect across California.