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Animal rights supporters cheer passage of a bill that would ban ban the sale of foie gras and whose sponsor, Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, said would end a violent and “inhumane process,” outside City Hall in New York, Oct. 30, 2019. The New York City Council overwhelmingly passed legislation on Wednesday that will ban the sale of foie gras in the city, one of the country’s largest markets, beginning in 2022. (Desiree Rios/The New York Times) Image Credit: NYT

NEW YORK - Lutece served it seared, with dark chocolate sauce and bitter orange marmalade. Le Cirque offered it in classic terrine form, but also served it with rabbit and made it the scene-stealer in a ravioli dish.

But Lutece closed in New York in 2004. Le Cirque shut its last Manhattan location in 2017. And foie gras, the calling card of fine French dining, is about to follow suit.

The New York City Council overwhelmingly passed legislation last week that will ban the sale of foie gras in the city, one of the country’s largest markets, beginning in 2022.

New York City will join California in prohibiting the sale of foie gras, the fattened liver of a duck or goose, over animal cruelty concerns.

“New York is the huban of dining in the world. How is it possible that New York doesn’t have foie gras?” said Marco Moreira, executive chef and owner of Tocqueville, an acclaimed French restaurant near Union Square, which offers an appetizer of foie gras from the Hudson Valley. “What’s next? No more veal? No more mushrooms?”

The unsavoury side of foie gras

Most foie gras is produced through a process known as gavage; ducks are force-fed a fatty corn-based mixture that engorges their livers. The process requires tubes to be inserted into a duck’s throat for a 20-day feeding regimen, swelling the liver to up to 10 times its normal size. The procedure can leave ducks too big to walk or even breathe before they are slaughtered, animal activists say.

Carlina Rivera, a Manhattan councilwoman who sponsored the foie gras legislation said her bill “tackles the most inhumane process” in the commercial food industry. “This is one of the most violent practices and it’s done for a purely luxury product,” she said.

Foie gras farmers say that the forced feedings are not cruel, and that the claims of torture are exaggerated. They say there is a bias against foie gras because it is a luxury product.

Other countries, including India and Britain, have banned the sale or production of foie gras. Whole Foods stopped selling the product in 1997, citing cruelty, and Postmates stopped delivering it in 2018.

But New York was seen as a critical battleground, where an expense-account culture of extravagance has fed demand for foie gras for decades. That tradition, however, gave way to an increasingly progressive City Council.

The bill bars the sale of foie gras produced by “force-feeding birds,” with each violation punishable by a $2,000 fine. But not all foie gras comes from ducks or geese that have been force-fed, and determining whether foie gras was illegally produced may present an enforcement challenge.

Under the law, it will be assumed that all foie gras came from duck or geese that have been force-fed unless “documentary” evidence is provided to the contrary.

What will the farmers do?

About 1,000 New York City restaurants have foie gras on their menu. But a greater impact may be felt on the farms north of New York City that produce foie gras.

Hudson Valley Foie Gras and La Belle Farm in Sullivan County say they employ about 400 people and that New York City makes up about 30% of their business. Hudson Valley, which slaughters 800 ducks a day, said they sold $15 million worth of foie gras last year.

A foie gras liver that weighs 90 grams can sell for $125; the bones and feathers from foie gras ducks are used in other products like dog food and coats, said Sergio Saravia, a founder of La Belle, and head of the Catskill Foie Gras Collective.

“California and New York were our biggest markets, so this is devastating,” said Saravia, adding that his farm has lost $50,000 a week in revenue from the loss of the California market. “It’s going to make it difficult to stay afloat.”

Three years to make the changes

Rivera said that changes were made to the original bill’s language to help upstate farms.

The ban will not take effect until three years after its passage, giving the farms a chance to adjust their business models, she said. The maximum fine for violating the ban was increased to $2,000 per violation from $1,000, but a proposed criminal penalty of up to a year in jail was eliminated.

Rivera rejected the notion that the ban would put the upstate farms out of business.

“These farms produce dozens of other products and gavage is aggressively cruel,” Rivera said. “There is an exotic animal ban in New York City and people still go to the circus.”

More than half the City Council - 30 members - signed on to sponsor the foie gras legislation, which was part of a package of anti-animal cruelty legislation that advocates said was among the most significant to be passed in New York City in years. In the end 42 members voted in favour of the ban.

Other legislation passed in the package will prevent horse carriages from working on humid days (measured using the equine heat index, a measure of temperature and relative humidity), create a mayor’s office of animal welfare and prohibit the capture and transfer of wild birds like pigeons. New York City’s ubiquitous birds are sometimes trapped and transported out of state to be used as targets in game shooting.

Some joy, some anger

Animal rights supporters cheered when the bills were passed, overcoming scattered opposition.

Allie Feldman Taylor, founder and president of Voters for Animal Rights, said the animal rights package will protect animals used for food, entertainment, and also protects wildlife. She characterized the bills as the “most significant animal rights legislation in our city’s history,” serving as evidence that New York City is becoming more compassionate, she said.

Restaurateurs like Moreira saw it differently.

“We will suffer,” Moreira said. “It’s like taking letters from the alphabet; they will take something out of our kitchen vocabulary that’s integral to the restaurant.”

Dan Williams, executive sous chef at Marea, on Central Park South, called foie gras a “craftsmanship ingredient” that takes time to learn how to harvest and prepare. “It’s not like deep-fried shrimp,” he said. “You have to have talent to put it on the menu.”

The New York Times News Service