What’s really behind the suit to overturn California’s foie gras ban?

Is California's animal rights movement really the target of the foie gras suit?
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Thirteen states have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review California’s ban on foie gras, arguing that it is unconstitutional for the state to pass laws that might interfere with agricultural practices in other states.

But the only state that still has foie gras farms -- New York -- was not among those complaining. What’s going on?

A closer look at the states involved in the suit might give some hints. Among them are Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, which are among the top 10 pork-producing states in the country; Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Montana, which are among the top 10 beef-producing states; and Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, which are among the top 10 poultry producers.


The other states all earn a significant portion of their agricultural income from those products. Supporters of the ban say that while those states may not care so much about foie gras, they may be worried that Golden State voters will next crack down on feed lots or some other aspect of livestock production.

They say the current suit is nothing more than a preemptive strike against further animal rights legislation.

“These states want to force California to allow the commerce in substandard and cruel products that the Golden State has rightly determined to be repugnant to its values,” says Paul Shapiro, vice president for farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States.

“States have the right to protect their citizens from inhumane and unsafe products. The courts have already upheld California’s admirable ban on selling livers from abused ducks, and I expect that’s not going to change.”

Opponents of the law say that by having standards that are different than those of other states, California is actually interfering with the ability of farmers in those states to sell their products.

“The Supreme Court should take the case because it raises an issue of extraordinary national importance in terms of whether one state, like California, can dictate the farming methods to be used by farmers in other states,” plaintiff’s attorney Michael Tenenbaum told Michael Doyle of McClatchy’s Washington bureau.


“While some in the California Legislature may think that they have the power to tell farmers in other states what to do, at least 13 other states recognize that this unconstitutionally interferes with interstate commerce.”

California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris says the law is nothing out of the ordinary. “State laws prohibiting the sale of products based on concerns about animal welfare, or simply on a social consensus concerning what is appropriate, are not unusual,” she wrote in a brief, citing various states’ laws prohibiting the sale of horse meat.

This is not the first time California has been sued over a law aimed at improving the lives of animals. In March of this year, six states sued California over the state’s law requiring that egg-laying hens be given larger cages.

California’s ban on the sale of foie gras was passed by the Legislature in 2004 and went into effect in 2012. It has been appealed directly several times before without success.

Will this attempt fare any better? Only time will tell. The Supreme Court is asked to hear thousands of cases every session, but only choose less than 100 to actually review.

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