Supreme Court: No Foie Gras for You, California

The court let stand the only statewide ban in the nation to prohibit the force-feeding of birds.

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A force feeding machine rests on a duck pen at Hudson Valley Foie Gras August 17, 2006 in Ferndale, N.Y.

Photograph by Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand California’s ban on foie gras, which means Golden State residents and visitors still cannot produce or sell the fattened liver of an overfed duck or goose in the state without risking a $1,000 daily fine. 

The law, which was signed in 2004 by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and took effect July 1, 2012, specifically prohibits “force feeding a bird for the purpose of enlarging the bird’s liver beyond normal size,” hiring someone to do so, or selling the resulting product.  As the enforcement date approached, some creative chefs and restaurateurs said they would continue to serve foie, but skirt the law by exploiting loopholes.  

In gustatory circles, the controversial feeding known as gavage is simply part of a farming process that results in a velvety, rich delicacy. Farmers – including the largest producer in the U.S. and an organization representing Canadian producers – joined forces with a California restaurant group to fight the ban. Thirteen states joined the petition, not because they’re fans of foie gras but because they’re concerned that the law discriminates against interstate commerce.

“Who gets to decide how farmers in New York and Canada may raise their livestock in New York and Canada if they want to continue selling their USDA-approved poultry products throughout all 50 of the United States?" the petition reads. "Not California.”

That’s moot now, of course, but it still speaks to the lack of foie gras bans beyond California. 

Since 2004, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington state, and Philadelphia have considered, but ultimately rejected, similar bans. 

Chicago's City Council approved a ban in 2006, but it lasted just 21 months. Not that chefs stopped serving the dish during the moratorium. The proprietor of the now-shuttered Hot Doug’s was, famously, the first person in the city to be fined for selling a Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage with Truffle Aioli, Foie Gras Mousse and Fleur de Sel. 

 In 2008, the ban was overturned, and Chicago returned to eating about as much foie gras as it ever did. Which is about as much as other cities eat – not a lot. 

Ariane Daguin, cofounder and CEO of D'Artagnan, a leading supplier of foie gras, said the U.S. consumes only about .002 pounds of the stuff per person a year. Almost all of it is eaten in restaurants, a fact that doesn't make the court's decision any easier to swallow for fans of the dish. 

"The Supreme Court decision was kind of a let down," she said.

 

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