California foie gras ban overturned

First in Chicago, now in California, foie gras is back on the menu.

A federal judge issued a ruling Wednesday that overturned California's law banning the sale of the fatty duck or goose liver, a delicacy prized by gourmands for its rich flavor.

The ruling at least briefly reverses what stood as a major victory for animal-welfare advocates trying to stop the common practice of force-feeding birds to enlarge their livers.

U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson ruled that the California ban was unconstitutional because it interfered with an existing federal law that regulates poultry products.

Many in the state's restaurant industry were rejoicing Wednesday shortly after the news was announced.

"I've been jumping up and down for about 90 minutes," said Napa Valley chef Ken Frank, who has been active in the pro-foie gras movement.

Foie gras from force-fed poultry was outlawed in California by a bill that passed the state legislature in 2004 and went into effect in 2012. 

Chicago previously banned foie gras for two years from 2006 to 2008 after the ban was slipped in an omnibus bill containing many other pieces of legislation. Then Mayor Richard M. Daley declared the ban "the silliest law that they've [City Council] ever passed." It was ultimately repealed by a vote of 37-6.

The ban had been challenged in court by the Hot's Restaurant Group in California, Hudson Valley Foie Gras, a producer in New York; and a group of Canadian foie gras farmers called Association des Eleveurs de Canards et d'Oies du Quebec.

The plaintiffs argued that states can't interfere with federally approved poultry products because they're already covered by the Poultry Products Inspection Act. That law gives the federal government exclusive powers to determine what ingredients belong in poultry. The plaintiffs said it was therefore illegal for California to require foie gras to be made from birds that weren't force-fed.

"California cannot regulate foie gras products' ingredients by creatively phrasing its law in terms of the manner in which those ingredients were produced," Wilson wrote in his ruling.

Sean Chaney, owner of Hot's Kitchen, said he was thrilled by the decision and already had foie gras overnighted from fellow plaintiff Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York.

"It is going to be a little bit of a foie gras extravaganza," he said.

Last year, the courts rejected a different argument against the state ban — that it improperly tried to regulate interstate commerce. But the new argument succeeded.

"Foie gras is legal in California and will be on my menu tonight," said Frank, chef at La Toque restaurant. "I haven't been without foie gras a single day since the ban went into effect, but tonight is the first time I've been able to charge for it."

Frank had been sending diners complimentary servings of foie gras along with a glass of wine and a card explaining that "this is a gift and an act of political protest against a law we think is unwise."

"Tonight we're going to tear the cards up and have a hell of a party," he said.

A coalition of animal rights groups including the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Humane Society released a joint statement vowing to appeal. "The state clearly has the right to ban the sale of the products of animal cruelty, and we expect the 9th Circuit will uphold this law, as it did in the previous round of litigation. We are asking the California Attorney General to file an immediate appeal."

A spokesman for the state attorney general's office said the ruling was under review.

Jonathan Lovvorn, chief counsel for the Humane Society of the United States, said he expects the ruling to be overturned, calling it "absurd on its face."

Lovvorn said force-feeding is not germane to the Poultry Products Inspection Act because it takes place long before birds reach a slaughterhouses where federal inspectors are stationed to enforce the law.

Within hours of the ruling, chef Josiah Citrin at Melisse in Santa Monica had already sent an email to customers advising them that foie gras would be back on his menu as well. "I am very excited to have some culinary freedom back and be able to use one of my favorite products again."

russ.parsons@latimes.com

david.pierson@latimes.com

Times staff writers David Lauter, Amy Scattergood and Javier Panzar contributed to this report.

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