Ducks are back on New York’s political minds, close to four years after the city under former mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill banning the sale and serving of foie gras in New York City, part of what he and his successor, Mayor Eric Adams, portrayed as an animal rights issue.
“The days of foie gras are gone and foie-gotten in New York City,” Adams tweeted in 2019 after the law was passed.
But others called foul, describing the city council-passed law as the desecration of a culinary tradition dating back to ancient Egypt, integral to French cultural heritage, and part of Thanksgiving, Christmas and Valentine’s Day rituals when annual $50m sales of the fattened liver of the large, blond Moulard duck peak.
But the ban never went into effect as a long legal fight came into being over the fate of foie gras: one that once again is in the unlikely position of roiling New York politics and pitting the state against its biggest city.
The ban was first blocked by legal appeals lodged by two foie gras-producing farms in upstate New York that argued it was “unreasonable coming from a local government that has no ducks or farms of its own”.
The New York state government in Albany agreed and argued that New York City does not have power to dictate what upstate farmers produce and sell. The city sued the state, contending it “values animal welfare over a luxury food item that requires force-feeding of birds”.
Then, earlier this month, a state judge ruled New York state hadn’t done enough research in blocking the ban, which it called “arbitrary and capricious”, and sided with city’s argument that it could exercise its power “to withdraw local support, including licensure and regulation, for the sale of a luxury item objected to by the City and its residents on moral grounds”.
But that isn’t the end of the issue – the court left open the possibility the state’s department of agriculture and markets could return to the court with more information. Moreover, the two farms producing foie gras near Liberty, New York, 100 miles north of Manhattan, are appealing the decision.
Nor has the war on foie gras been clearly victorious elsewhere. California’s ban, enacted in 2004 by the then governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, culminated in 2020 with a federal judge ruling that Californians could legally buy foie gras, provided the product and transaction are made out of state.
Proponents of foie gras farming argue that animal rights activists disconnected from food production are anthropomorphizing. The activists, by turn, argue that they are taking on multimillion-dollar industries on behalf of mistreated ducks.
Allie Taylor, president of Voters for Animals Rights, says Governor Kathy Hochul is “in the pocket of the foie gras industry. It’s unfathomable that she would ignore the will of the city council and 81% of New York City voters in favor of handful of duck farmers upstate.” Brian Pease, a lawyer for the group, says the state’s agricultural agency should “hang its head in shame”.
But duck farmers are equally adamant that their rights are being trampled.
On a tour of Hudson Valley Foie Gras last week, Marcus Henley, the farm’s owner, explained that his business had been mischaracterized. “The challenges to foie gras have certainly made us a better company, a better farm and a better place to work,” he says. Farming ducks for their livers may be “unusual”, he acknowledges, but it’s also “acceptable animal agriculture”.
Besides the liver, which can weigh 1-2lb of the duck’s 15lb weight, the down of the duck is sold to the pillow and comforter industry; the tongue, feet and intestines end up in duck soup. “We use everything but the quack,” says Henley. “But these ducks don’t quack.”
New York’s city council had never sent a delegation to the farm to see the process, despite an invitation to do so. “It’s been frustrating,” Henley says. “We begged them to come visit before they made a decision that would wipe out the jobs of hundreds of people.”
Hudson Valley Foie Gras, which employs about 320 people, sits in an area that hasn’t seen the kind of lifestyle gentrification experienced by much of the Hudson Valley. The soil is poor and at one time the area met much of New York’s demand for eggs. But refrigeration and the highway system changed that, and now the town is rundown with an unemployment rate over 16%, a median income of $26,000, along with an endemic fentanyl problem.
New York City’s foie gras market accounts for 20-30% of sales, Henley says. Kill these farms and you’ll kill the area’s employment, directly and by killing feed stock businesses and more besides. But after years of bad press, the farm owners know they have a hill to climb.
“Everything we do is with the ducks’ welfare in mind,” Henley says. A global outbreak of avian flu, first detected in the US in Colorado in 2022, is a cause of concern.
Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic party consultant, says the food fight between the city and the state is one the city is likely to lose.
“Cities in the US are effectively corporations that operate at the behest and noblesse oblige of the state. Governors are all-powerful. There’s a reason they’re called ‘your excellency’. They can pick up the phone to the White House and get things done.”
In the case of foie gras, the issue was an easy PR win for the city council, Sheinkopf adds, but it might not last – even if the legal wrangle continues.
“They could make themselves appear humane. But people forget that New York has a significant agricultural economy. Nobody in Manhattan lives off the proceeds of a farm but there are people upstate who do, and they don’t want to be living in boxes by the river. The likely outcome is the state wins.”