New York state vs New York City | The war over foie gras

In New York, one of the most celebrated culinary centres in the world, a war over foie gras is pitting the city.
Tens of thousands of ducks are raised for foie gras at the Hudson Valley Foie Gras Farm in upstate New York

NEW YORK - In New York, one of the most celebrated culinary centres in the world, a war over foie gras is pitting the city, backed by animal rights activists, against duck farmers and restaurant owners, whose position is supported by the state.

Karen Frommer, enjoying a meal at an upscale restaurant in Manhattan, shrugs when asked about the Big Apple's ban on the sale, consumption and possession of the controversial delicacy.

"We will never be able to deal with vegans at all," the 78-year-old tells AFP.

"But if they are always focused on the feeding of the ducks, let them watch a film on a slaughtering process of lambs, or housing of chickens in huge buildings," she adds.

The retiree developed a taste for foie gras in southwestern France half a century ago and often eats it terrine, whole or pan-friend at the restaurant 15East @ Tocqueville.

For director Marco Moreira, a Brazilian of Italian origin, "It's hard to imagine no fine dining without foie gras." 

For now, he doesn't have to, as the courts consider a challenge to New York City's ban that was supposed to take effect last November.

New York City outlaw the production, sale and consumption of foie gras in 2019, citing the cruel treatment of ducks

All of the foie gras in New York is made exclusively in the state of 20 million people, as France no longer exports the controversial delicacy.

Ex-NYC mayor Bill de Blasio signed off on municipal legislation outlawing foie gras in November 2019, following a similar move in California and after lobbying by animal welfare associations.

Lawmakers ruled it was cruel to force-feed ducks and geese to fatten their livers for human consumption, and the ban prohibiting any establishment from selling, serving or even possessing foie gras was due to take effect three years after its passage.

But last September, New York state's two largest duck farms and foie gras producers -- Hudson Valley Foie Gras Farm and La Belle Farm -- won a stay on the ban from a local court.

Late last year, restaurant owners and farmers then won the support of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, which challenged the legality of New York City's law.

The dispute deepened further when in January the city, led since last year by center-right Democrat and vegan Eric Adams, countered by suing the state to get the ban back in place.

Marcus Henley, the vice-president of Hudson Valley Foie Gras farm in Ferndale says his business would suffer from the ban

Farmer and producer Marcus Henley is equally certain of his rights, with foie gras legal everywhere else in New York state.

Resembling an old rocker, and with a slow, soft-spoken delivery, the vice president of Hudson Valley Foie Gras Farm gives AFP a tour of his huge duck and chicken operation in Ferndale, two hours northwest of Manhattan.

- 'Worrisome' -

Employing 320 mostly Latin American farm workers who force-feed, slaughter, bleed, pluck and then remove the livers from the ducks, Henley says he generates $25 million in annual sales.

He would lose a quarter of that if the ban comes into force.

"Anytime you go into court, it's always a little worrisome," the 66-year-old says.

A farm worker guts a duck for its liver at the Hudson Valley Foie Gras farm in upstate New York on March 3, 2023

"(But) you can't pass a local law that negatively impacts farming in a state-certified agricultural district," he adds, showing off pens full of tens of thousands of ducks, which are raised from three days old until they are killed at 105 days.

Under huge, creaking sheds amid a pungent smell typical of poultry farming, three-month-old ducks are force-fed with compressor machines bearing plastic pipes and tubes that send grain mixed with water into their gizzards.

The practice is banned in several countries, including Britain.

"I can tell you as a farmer, that, no, absolutely not, the animals don't suffer," insists Henley, who believes the gizzard has a natural storage function.

"It's easy to anthropomorphize," says the trained scientist. (But) animals and people are different," he adds.

Foie gras served at the Manhattan restaurant 15 East @Tocqueville on February 23, 2023 in New York

Bryan Pease, a lawyer for the Voters for Animal Rights association, which worked on the New York law, is shocked by the ducks' treatment.

"The vast majority of people believe that all animals deserve to be humanely treated, even animals raised for food," he told AFP.

Pease is convinced that foie gras will disappear from New York City tables for good "in a few months."

But until judges rule on the final decision, all predictions are for now just speculation. 

- by Nicolas Revise

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