New York’s foie gras wars

The city’s ban on the dish is held up in the courts, opening a dispute between state and local Democratic authorities

An employee fattens a duck at the Hudson Valley Foie Gras farm in New York last March.
An employee fattens a duck at the Hudson Valley Foie Gras farm in New York last March.KENA BETANCUR (AFP via Getty Images)
Iker Seisdedos

Is foie gras the height of culinary delicacies or evidence of human brutality to animals? The dish has become the center of a political and legal battle in New York, leading to disputes between local and state authorities. The disagreement has renewed an old tension between New York State and its most populous city.

Everything began four years ago, when former New York mayor Bill DeBlasio approved, with overwhelming City Council support, a law that prohibited the “storage and sale” of foie gras in the metropolitan area as of November 25, 2022. It was a triumph for animal rights organizations, who argued that the process of force-feeding geese and ducks to fatten their livers is an intolerable act of cruelty. The breeders of the birds deny the accusation, alleging that recent changes to the techniques have “humanized” the process.

Two of the country’s main producers are in Liberty, 175 kilometers north of Manhattan. At the prospect of losing the Big Apple market, they set their competition aside and created an organization called the Catskill Foie Gras Collective to prevent the prohibition, which the New York Supreme Court suspended last autumn, from going into effect. While the court took a definitive decision, the state’s Department of Agriculture ruled on behalf of the farmers, striking down the norm as “unreasonably restrictive.”

What happened next is what typically happens in the country: the issue got tied up in the courts, where it may be stuck for a while. The city filed suit against the Department of Agriculture, and an Albany judge struck it down, calling the state’s decision “arbitrary and capricious.”

Nothing has stopped the more than 1000 restaurants that offer the dish in New York from continuing to sell it. The prohibition contemplated fines of up to $2,000 and penalty of prison for the offenders.

The French exception

The drama continued with the French government joining the scene: it asked the City to reconsider the decision. It wasn’t the first time Paris took sides in this issue. In 2004, California banned, and the French denounced an “attack on one of their traditions.” The battle lasted eight years. Since 2012, the most populous state in the United States has not permitted the sale of foie gras, but three years ago a federal judge ruled that California residents can buy foie gras imported from other parts of the country. In 2006, Chicago took the same path, but the ban never went into effect. Different aspects of the production of foie gras —production, importation or both— are banned in at least 15 countries, including Germany, India, Argentina, Israel and the United Kingdom.

Contradicting Bill DeBlasio and his successor, Mayor Eric Adams, the state resorted to an obscure law that bans urban areas from dictating what farmers can cultivate and commercialize. The suit filed by La Belle Farm notes that “the Local Restriction does not apply to a single duck within the City of New York because it is unlawful to even keep ducks in that jurisdiction. … It should be clear as a matter of law that the Local Restriction serves only to restrict farm operations beyond New York City’s own borders.”

The battle has also shown the difference between Mayor Adams, who describes himself as “almost vegan,” and governor Kathy Hochul. Both are Democrats, and they recently faced off over the responsibility for the 100,000 migrants who arrived from the Mexican border, when the mayor sent the migrants outside of the city. Some of them arrived in places contested by Republicans and Democrats.

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