Part IV:  Ducks out of water

By HELEN DEMERANVILLE
Posted 11/23/21

In 2006, the Chicago City Council passed a foie gras ban. “The silliest law that they’ve ever passed,” said Democratic mayor Richard M. Daley. Two years later, in response to a …

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Part IV:  Ducks out of water

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In 2006, the Chicago City Council passed a foie gras ban. “The silliest law that they’ve ever passed,” said Democratic mayor Richard M. Daley. Two years later, in response to a public outcry, the ban was reversed.  

The New York City Council was not deterred. On October 29, 2019, city council member Mark Levine (D-Manhattan) said, “[T]his city council has begun to put empathy for the suffering of animals front and center… [W]e are translating that empathy into tangible policy, smart policy for the animals in this city and beyond.” And that meant “changing the food production system.” He was talking about a proposed foie gras ban. Foie gras, French for fatty liver, is typically harvested from geese or ducks.

Levine’s words left many wondering about the council’s purview. Did their reach extend beyond the five boroughs? And what about the food production system? Was New York City a producer of foie gras?  

On October 30, 2019, when the foie gras ban passed the council, Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan), the legislation’s sponsor, was quoted in The New York Times: the bill “tackles the most inhumane processes… one of the most violent practices.”

Was the council banning the sale of foie gras in NYC? Or was their real intent to shut down the foie gras farms?  Product or process—which was it?

“What the city council is saying is that they don’t like the farming practice,” said Sen. Mike Martucci (R-42 Delaware, Orange, Sullivan and Ulster counties)—a farmer himself. “If they wanted to outlaw the process in the five boroughs, well, that’s within their jurisdiction.  But they’re outlawing a process that is outside their jurisdiction."

One hundred miles northwest of New York City, where foie gras is produced, foie gras farmers and hundreds of workers at Hudson Valley Foie Gras (HVFG) and La Belle Farms (LBF), two of Sullivan County’s biggest businesses, were angry.

Not a single city council member had visited the Sullivan County farms to see firsthand the process called gavage, the force-feeding of ducks or geese to engorge the liver to up to 10 times its normal weight.

Adding insult to injury: not a single business or person produced foie gras in NYC, and not a single city job was threatened.

On November 25, 2019, NYC mayor Bill de Blasio (D), with the slash of a pen, banned the sale of foie gras in the Big Apple with Local Law 202. “You start learning about it and it’s just terrifying,” he said. “It’s terrifying that somehow this became a thing that humans would do and thought was normal.” The ban is effective on November 25, 2022.

This Thanksgiving marks a milestone—one year left and counting before the ban takes effect. If the ban proceeds, Hudson Valley and La Belle will hemorrhage jobs or worse still, shut down.  New York City is by far the biggest market for the foie gras farms, the lifeblood of their businesses, constituting one-third of up to $50 million in yearly sales.

The buck doesn’t stop at the duck farms. Tens of ancillary businesses rely on Hudson Valley and La Belle for work—a feed company, the energy businesses, transport and more. In short, when you add it all up—the jobs, the taxes, the sales in local stores and restaurants—there is an estimated $150 million circulating in Sullivan County each year due to the foie gras farms. Sullivan County is bracing for a big hit.

There is a glimmer of hope. On the books in New York is a law known mostly to farmers, New York State Agriculture and Markets Law 305-a (1)(a):  “Local governments, when exercising their powers to enact and administer comprehensive plans and local laws, ordinances, rules or regulations… shall not unreasonably restrict or regulate farm operations within agricultural districts in contravention of the purposes of this article unless it can be shown that the public health or safety is threatened.”

“The council is not saying foie gras is a public health risk,” Martucci said. They just don’t like the practice of gavage.

At the request of Hudson Valley and La Belle, NYS Ag and Markets is reviewing the foie gras ban and on August 7, 2020, commissioner Richard A. Ball sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, stating:  “[I]t appears that the city’s enactment of Administrative Code Title 17, Chapter 19 violates state agricultural policy and the provisions of AML Article 25-AA by adopting a code provision that will unreasonably restrict the LBF and HVFG operations by prohibiting, among other things, the sale of foie gras produced using an on-farm livestock feeding method that the city deems to be inhumane.” On November 30, 2020, in writing, the city formally responded. As of November 19, 2021, the NYS Agriculture and Markets press office said, “The case is still being reviewed.”

Some key testimony at city hall supporting the ban was puzzling.

Voters for Animal Rights (VFAR) board member Kathy Nizzari said, “I don’t work with birds.” In defense of the ban, she cited, among others, Charles Darwin. (Darwin was a founding member of the Glutton Club at Cambridge, an organization which was “devoted to devouring ‘birds and beasts which were before unknown to human palate’”). She referenced “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale,” a Hollywood film and a Ph.D. (not a DVM), from VFAR’s website who “viewed videos.” Among the materials Nizzari entered for the record, the Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Welfare (SCAHAW) report for the EU, “Welfare Aspects of the Production of Foie Gras in Ducks and Geese,” was published on December 16, 1998—clearly dated but cited frequently by animal rights activists.

According to the Sullivan County foie gras farmers, foie gras production has changed in key ways in the last 23 years. The ducks are no longer housed in battery cages but in open barns. The feeding tube is slender, rubber and seven inches long, not 18 inches and metal. Uncooked corn has been replaced by a mushy grain, 48 percent corn and soy and 52 percent water.

VFAR, an animal rights lobbying group, was instrumental in passing the New York City foie gras ban, pushing the legislation for two years before it was introduced. Allie Taylor, VFAR’s president, was at Rivera’s side when her bill became law.

The other key player behind the ban, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has an annual budget of $100 million. HSUS has tied up Sullivan County’s foie gras farmers in court since its animal protection litigation section opened in 2005.

In its written testimony against gavage, the Animal Law Committee of the NYC Bar Association stated, “Neither federal law nor state law specifically protects ducks and geese from this force-feeding.”

Also testifying in favor of the ban, Eileen Jefferson, DVM, NYS representative of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association—a small organization with 9,000 members. Her credentials include “fifteen years of… equine care experience,” but make no reference to avian care. On the HSVMA leadership council is Holly Cheever, DVM, a heavy hitter in the fight against gavage.

In contrast, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), with more than 97,000 members, takes no position on animal welfare concerns surrounding the science of foie gras—although the opposition frequently cites their 2014 study.  Of note in that study and unaddressed by opponents of foie gras, “Empirical research addressing the health and welfare state of the bird during this process is limited in both quantity and quality.” As of October 29, 2021, the AVMA still had “no policy or position on foie gras production.”

“I saw gavage firsthand, and it was very eye-opening,” Martucci said. “Folks on the city council should do exactly what I did—go and see for themselves. Those farms used best practices, safety and otherwise.”  

Next week: Part 5, Waiting for Carlina—a double take on the science of gavage and where the animal rights activists put their money.

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