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The Decade-Long Foie Gras Fight, Explained

The legislation, lawsuits, and appeals that tell the story of foie gras in America

The story of foie gras bans in the United States is a thorny web of petitions, lawsuits, and appeals. As soon as one side makes ground, it seems only a matter of time before rulings are reversed or new problems are litigated. In light of this week's court decision to re-legalize the sale of foie gras in California (at least until another appeal is on the table), here's a look at over ten gnarly years of foie gras disputes in America.


2003

Two animal rights activist groups, In Defense of Animals and Animal Protection and Rescue League, sue a California foie gras farm. Per the San Francisco Chronicle: The lawsuit "accuses Sonoma Foie Gras of violating state laws against cruelty toward animals by forcing its ducks to consume so much food that their livers enlarge to 12 times their normal size. The practice 'results in extreme, unmitigated pain and suffering as well as crippling injuries,' the suit says." Ultimately, Sonoma Foie Gras was permitted to continue production until the 2012 ban would go into effect.

2004

On September 29, California's then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signs into law California S.B. 1520, which prohibits force feeding birds to enlarge their livers and prohibits the sale of products created with this process. The bill specifies that the ban will go into effect seven and a half years later, on July 1, 2012.

2005

Renowned Chicago chef Charlie Trotter (who passed away in 2013) speaks out against foie gras and stops serving it as his restaurant. He tells the Chicago Tribune: "What I have seen, it's just inappropriate. There are too many great things to eat out there that I don't believe that any animal would have to go through that for our benefit." He also throws shade at fellow Chicago chef Rick Tramonto, who called Trotter's decision "hypocritical." Over on eGullet, chef/tv host/author Anthony Bourdain accuses Trotter of "giving comfort and succour to the enemy" and being "clearly and indisputably full of shit." Trotter, however, doesn't back down.

Also in 2005, the American Veterinary Medical Association declined to take a position against foie gras production techniques following a visit to Hudson Valley Foie Gras. The New York Times also visits HVFG, and Lawrence Downes writes: "I saw no pain or panic in Mr. Yanay's ducks, no quacking or frenzied flapping in the cool, dimly lighted open pens where a young woman with a gavage funnel did her work."

2006

In April, Chicago's City Council bans the sale of foie gras. Then mayor Richard Daley goes on record calling the law "silly." A few months later, a group of animal rights activists send a massive petition to New York state's Department of Agriculture and Markets asking them to halt the sale of foie gras on the grounds that it is "diseased." Chef Eric Ripert tells the New York Times that he is skeptical: 'We can criticize how foie gras is produced,' he said, 'and be concerned about the health of the duck and blah, blah, blah, O.K., fine.' But many food processes are cruel, Mr. Ripert said, including the farming of chicken and fish."

There are also two key lawsuits filed this year. In January, Sonoma Foie Gras sues Whole Foods for "intentional interference with contract." Per the New York Times, the suit alleges that "Whole Foods told Grimaud Farms ... to stop processing and distributing Sonoma's ducks and foie gras or the grocer would no longer do business with the company." Following up on their June petition, the Humane Society of the United States, the Government Accountability Project's Food Safety Program, Farm Sanctuary, and the New York State Humane Association sue the Department of Agriculture and Markets in November. As the New York Sun reports, the lawsuit alleges that "the ducks used are overfed to such an extent that they are diseased and unfit for sale under state law."

2007

Chicago restaurants feel the burden of the foie gras ban, and come up with creative solutions to skirt it. Doug Sohn of the legendary (and recently shuttered) tube meat institution Hot Doug's becomes the first Chicago restaurateur to be fined for serving foie. He has to pay a $250 fine for serving his foie sausage consisting of foie gras and Sauternes topped with truffle aioli, foie gras mouse and fluer de sel. He later tells Chicago's Encyclopedia Show that he felt he had "ignored the law and won."

Photo: Jason Scragz/Flickr

2008

After two foie-free years, Chicago's City Council reverses their ban on foie gras.

Video: Chicago City Council Repeals Foie-Gras Ban

2009

In New York City, chef David Chang adds additional foie dishes to his menus and donated the proceeds as an act of defiance against "the anti-foie gras campaign of intimidation and misinformation." Other chefs follow suit.

2010

In May, chef Thomas Keller becomes a protest target. The Animal Protection and Rescue League, a vegan animal rights group, hosts a multi-city protest against TKRG, hitting Per Se in New York, Bouchon in Los Angeles, and the French Laundry in Yountville, CA. Protesters from the Portland Animal Defense League target acclaimed Oregon restaurants Beast and Le Pigeon in June. Beast's Naomi Pomeroy tells Eater: "I really wish they spent time fighting against restaurants (and there are many here - and everywhere) that buy conventionally raised factory farmed product. When they fight against businesses like mine, they are really fighting against people who already agree with them in so many ways. There truly are bigger, better fights to be had - IBP, Monsanto - those are the people who are ruining it all. Not some people funnel-feeding geese."

2011

The Animal League Defense Fund files a legal petition urging the USDA to add labels to foie gras: "NOTICE: Foie gras products are derived from diseased birds."

2012

As the California foie ban looms, chefs voice their opinions against the ban and over 100 chefs — including big names like Thomas Keller, Dominique Crenn, Ludo Lefebvre, and Christopher Kostow — sign a petition protesting the ban and submitting proposed guidelines for ethical foie production. Farewell to foie dinners abound, even as speculation mounts regarding the degree to which the ban will be enforced.

On July 1, the California foie gras ban takes effect. Within days, Hudson Valley Foie Gras, Association des Éleveurs de Canards et d'Oies du Québec (a duck farming organization), and Los Angeles' Hot's Restaurant Group Inc. sue the state of California claiming the ban is unconstitutional. A federal judge rules the lawsuit may proceed, but refuses to immediately lift the ban as the suit requests. In September, he denies another attempt from the same parties to lift the ban. This lawsuit becomes the cornerstone of the anti-ban legal activities.

In November, PETA sues Hot's Kitchen over offering free foie to customers — yes, that's from the restaurant group that is suing the state of California.

2013

As California restaurateurs feel the sting of the foie gras ban, the Animal League Defense Fund takes a page from the PETA playbook and sues Napa restaurant La Toque for giving away foie gras to diners "on a spontaneous basis." A federal court shoots a case brought by the ALDF against the US Department of Agriculture down. The judge writes: "Plaintiffs' voluminous submission of technical papers and data supports the Court's view that Plaintiffs are challenging a scientific conclusion and not a legal one ... this is an issue falling squarely under the USDA's discretion by law."

Consequences for California restaurateurs flouting the ban continue to mount, with a San Jose chef receiving death threats over his plan to give away free foie gras doughnuts. On the other side of the country, anti-foie activists hack Hudson Valley Foie Gras, distributing names and contact info to animal rights groups. HVFG promptly reached out to its customers noting that "the animals at our farm are well cared for." The Animal League Defense Fund then ask the California attorney general to investigate the California residents who appeared on the hacked list.

Meanwhile, the mega lawsuit filed by HVFG, Association des Éleveurs de Canards et d'Oies du Québec, and Hot's Restaurant Group soldiers on. The US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agrees with a district court judge's decision to uphold the ban and foie remains illegal in California. Adding insult to injury, PETA gets clearance to move ahead with its suit against Hot's Kitchen.

2014

In July — roughly two years after the California ban went live — thirteen states petition the US Supreme Court to review the 9th Circuit's decision not to reverse the ban. In October, the Supreme Court decides not to review the case, leaving the ban in effect.

2015

On January 7th, Judge Stephen Wilson of the U.S. District Court for California's Central District invalidates California's ban of restaurants selling foie gras.

At this point it is unclear if the invalidation will be upheld — the attorney general is "reviewing the ruling" according to a rep and the state is entitled to appeal — but you can read Wilson's judgment here.

Paula Forbes contributed reporting to this article.

Top Photo: cyclonebill/Flickr

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