After decades of surging popularity, the tide may be turning against foie gras in America. Recent bans in New York City and California on the contentious delicacy, which is made from the specially fattened liver of a duck or goose, have aimed to end production methods that some lawmakers say are inhumane.
But those bans will have punishing effects on rural communities, say the few remaining foie gras producers in the Northeast. Last week, the country’s two largest operations and their county chairman filed formal petitions to declare New York City’s recent ban on foie gras an unreasonable restriction on their farms, and asked the state to declare it unconstitutional.
In their petitions, La Belle Farms and Hudson Valley Foie Gras said losing access to New York City, their biggest market, would have catastrophic effects on their businesses and on Sullivan County, the Catskills area north of the city, where they employ around 380 people. The two farms reported over $38 million in sales last year, which also includes other duck, chicken, and poultry products. They say that income has a three-to-one “multiplier effect,” and is more accurately valued at $114 million in economic stimulus.
If their requests succeed, New York City would have to overturn its recently-enacted ban, which goes into effect by 2022, or make modifications acceptable to the Sullivan County farmers.
The petitions, which were requests for a state process called a 305-a review, were filed last Wednesday with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. Typically, the reviews resolve conflicts between farmers and local governments about agricultural practices, like spreading manure or building new barns, according to notices posted online. If the state finds that New York City’s ban restricts farming in Sullivan County, it would be the first to mediate a dispute with urban lawmakers over 100 miles away.
Foie gras wasn’t always frowned upon by city sophisticates. From the 1980s to 2005, demand for the fatty liver grew from zero to 420 tons per year, 95 percent of which came from urban fine dining establishments. Today, it’s listed on the menus of 1,000 restaurants in New York City, and on burgers from Seattle to Palm Beach.
“The indisputable fact is that it is delicious,” says Ken Frank, executive chef and owner of La Toque, a Napa, California restaurant. “Not unlike bacon, everything is better with foie gras.”
Frank, who purchased his foie gras from the two Sullivan County farms, hasn’t served the delicacy since January, when a much-disputed ban in California went back into effect. The ban, which passed in 2004, and went into effect in 2012, has been challenged in court ever since. (Hudson Valley Foie Gras is one of the plaintiffs.)
The two farms sell around 355 tons of the product every year, according to Sergio Saravia, La Belle’s president. While chefs like Frank are key customers, the farms say one-third of their business is in New York City, where they deliver fresh foie gras and duck products to distributors, restaurants, and farmers’ markets.
In the petitions, the farms claim that losing these customers could put them out of business. Therefore, the city’s ban is tantamount to a farming restriction. The farmers have a strong case, they say, because a guidance document states that an action in one locality may translate into an “unduly burdensome restriction” on farming in another.
“It’s unprecedented,” says Saravia. “New York City is legislating extra-territorially, and they can’t do it.”
If the state’s agriculture department, which did not respond to requests for comment, chooses to undertake the review, an order may not be granted for months or years. In the meantime, Saravia says, the Sullivan County duck farms intend to challenge the city’s foie gras ban in state and federal court.