Foie gras ban is overturned
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.
The ban had been challenged in court by the Hot’s Restaurant Group in California (which includes Hot’s Cantina in Northridge, Four Daughters in Manhattan Beach and Hot’s Kitchen in Hermosa Beach); 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.
Experts said the ruling would have no bearing on California’s new egg law, which requires more space for laying hens, because eggs aren’t covered by the Poultry Products Inspection Act.
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,” he told The Times.
Los Angeles chef Ludo Lefebvre of Trois Mec and Petit Trois is also planning on adding it to his menu, though perhaps not as quickly.
“First and foremost, I am very happy for my guests, I know the people of California have missed their foie,” he said. “Speaking as a French chef, it is an important ingredient and part of the legacy of French cooking.”
“It has felt like a void for a couple of years, but I am an upstanding American citizen and did not want to break the law. I have already placed my order and as soon as I can get it, I will be putting seared foie gras on the menu at Trois Mec and a terrine on the menu at Petit Trois.”
Chefs were burning up Twitter celebrating the ruling. Providence chef Michael Cimarusti likened it to the end of Prohibition: “It feels a little like December of 1933.”
Times staff writers David Lauter, Amy Scattergood and Javier Panzar contributed to this report.