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Courts overturn foie gras ban

A federal judge on Wednesday overturned California’s law banning the sale of foie gras, a ban sparked largely by outrage over the farming practices of a Sonoma company, which some likened to animal torture.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson does not mean Sonoma Foie Gras can restart production in the state. But it will allow the reconstituted company to sell products brought in from outside California, according to company co-founder Junny Gonzalez.

“We are so thrilled, so happy,” Gonzalez, who lives in Sonoma, said Wednesday.

Chefs opposed to the ban on the duck-liver delicacy also hailed Wednesday’s ruling, which comes two years after the state enacted the ban in July 2012.

“Choice has returned to California menus,” said Ken Frank, chef at Napa’s La Toque restaurant.

The ban had been challenged by the Hot’s Restaurant Group in California; Hudson Valley Foie Gras, a producer in New York; and a group of Canadian foie gras farmers called Association des Eleveurs de Canards et d’Oies du Quebec.

The judge ruled the law was unconstitutional because it interferes with an existing federal law that regulates poultry products. The courts last year rejected the argument that the ban improperly regulated interstate commerce.

Critics of Wilson’s ruling vowed Wednesday to appeal the judge’s decision. But for now, foie gras can legally be sold in the state.

“It’s great. I’m pretty happy about it,” said Jesse Mallgren, executive chef of Madrona Manor in Healdsburg.

Mallgren said he has been purchasing foie gras from an East Coast company and giving it away to patrons for free because there is demand for the delicacy. Now, he said the product will be just another option on the fixed-price menus served at the Wine Country establishment.

“It’s a great product,” he said. “I don’t think the ban was fully thought out.”

In the wake of the ban, Frank at La Toque had been sending diners complimentary servings of foie gras along with a glass of wine and a card explaining that “this is a gift and an act of political protest against a law we think is unwise.”

Frank, who has defended himself in lawsuits filed against him by animal rights groups, said he “no longer has to shoulder the burden of buying foie gras and giving it away in protest. I can go after these misguided people to recoup my fees.”

Doug Keane, the former chef/owner of Michelin-rated Cyrus in Healdsburg, said he was fielding calls Wednesday from chefs across the Bay Area asking whether he had foie gras for them to serve at their restaurants. They know Keane keeps a stash of the product in a freezer in his test kitchen.

He predicted sales of foie gras will “skyrocket overnight.”

Keane called the lifting of the ban “bittersweet” because of the lingering perception that harvesting foie gras isn’t a humane practice.

“In my heart of hearts, I truly believe that it is,” he said.

At Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, sous chef Warren Bullock said he anticipates bringing foie gras back on the menu, possibly as early as this weekend. He said there are more “important issues” in food preparation to worry about than the manner in which foie gras is produced, citing the cattle industry in particular.

The “gavage” method of harvesting foie gras involves grasping the duck’s head and inserting a 10-inch metal pipe the length of its esophagus to administer a 10- to 12-ounce serving of cornmeal mush in about four seconds. With twice-daily feedings over two weeks, a duck’s liver swells from one-third of a pound to 1½ pounds, and its total weight increases by about six pounds before slaughter and processing.

Foie gras fans point out that in nature, ducks dramatically fatten themselves up before migrating. Critics, however, liken the practice to animal abuse.

Gonzalez said the lifting of the ban means Artisan Foie Gras, the rebranded company she co-owns with her husband, Guillermo, can begin selling products in California. She said the company does not operate a farm.

“We were so devastated when our business closed. This is a celebration,” Junny Gonzalez said.

The couple founded Sonoma Foie Gras in 1986, when specialty food products increasingly were in demand. In 1998, spurred by stricter U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations and local zoning laws that limited expansion, they moved the farming operations to San Joaquin County. At its peak, Sonoma Foie Gras had about 25,000 ducks and annual sales of about $5 million. It was one of only two companies in the United States that raised ducks for the purpose of making foie gras. The other is in Ferndale, in New York’s Hudson Valley region.

Concerns over Sonoma Foie Gras’ farming methods made the Gonzalezes a target of three Santa Cruz activists who staged clandestine raids at the company’s San Joaquin County farm in 2003. The ensuing uproar ultimately led the state Legislature to pass a bill in 2004 outlawing the practice, delaying the ban for several years to ostensibly give producers time to find more humane ways of harvesting the liver delicacy.

Animal rights groups on Wednesday reacted with outrage at the judge’s decision.

Elliot Katz, a Mill Valley veterinarian and founder of In Defense of Animals, called the lifting of the ban a “tragedy,” saying the practice of fattening duck livers to produce foie gras is “absolutely the most disturbing and cruelest form of torture of animals I’ve ever seen.”

In 2003, Katz’s organization joined with another animal rights group in suing the Gonzalezes, arguing that farming practices at the San Joaquin County farm violated the state’s anti-cruelty laws. The suit was dropped when state lawmakers intervened.

Katz vowed to pick up the fight again.

A coalition of animal rights groups including the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Humane Society released a joint statement vowing to appeal the lifting of the ban. “The state clearly has the right to ban the sale of the products of animal cruelty, and we expect the 9th Circuit will uphold this law, as it did in the previous round of litigation. We are asking the California Attorney General to file an immediate appeal.”

Frank, at La Toque, predicted such an effort would fail.

“It’s game over. They lost,” he said. “And they will continue to lose. While I don’t doubt that they mean well, their argument simply crumbles in the face of the facts. No credible case can be made that the production of foie gras is torture. All they have is their propaganda and lies.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek