FOOD & DRINK
01/07/2015 11:01 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2015

California's Ban On Foie Gras Sales Overturned By Federal Judge

LOS ANGELES -- Sorry, uni. Your reign as California's supreme culinary luxury is over. Foie gras has reclaimed its rightful throne after 2 1/2 years of exile.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson of the Central District of California on Wednesday afternoon struck down the state's ban on the sale of foie gras, which took effect in July 2012 under a 2004 law. Sales may resume immediately and restaurant chefs across California jubilantly announced that they would start serving the fatty duck or goose liver, an emblem of traditional French cuisine, at dinner that very evening.

Chef Ken Frank, an outspoken opponent of the ban for years, said that he would be offering foie gras with persimmons as an appetizer, and foie gras and truffle-stuffed capon as an entree at his restaurant La Toque in Napa on Wednesday night.

"I've been jumping up and down all day," Frank said. "I've been waiting over two years for this. Before the ban, foie gras was the most popular item on our menu, and I expect it will be again starting tonight."

Wednesday's ruling stems from a lawsuit filed against California Attorney General Kamala Harris by foie gras producers in New York and Quebec, along with a California-based restaurant group, the day after the ban took effect. The suit was dealt several blows as it proceeded through the courts -- most recently in October, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear arguments on a preliminary injunction that would have allowed foie gras sales to resume right away. But Wilson's 15-page decision shows he ultimately agreed with the plaintiffs' contention that the California law was "preempted" by the federal Poultry Products Inspection Act, which gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture sole jurisdiction over the ingredients allowed in poultry products.

On a call with The Huffington Post, plaintiffs' attorney Michael Tenenbaum hailed the decision as "not just a victory for foie gras, but a victory for freedom."

Jot Condie, president and CEO of the California Restaurant Association, agreed. "We think it's a great day for restaurants and chefs," he said. "They're back in control of their kitchens and menus, and they once again have the freedom to prepare and serve a USDA-approved product to their customers."

Not everyone was enthusiastic about the decision. Animal welfare groups have long argued that the production of foie gras, which involves force-feeding ducks and geese to increase the size and fat content of their livers, amounts to animal cruelty. It was their advocacy that convinced California legislators to write the law in the first place.

"California lawmakers conducted a serious-minded debate about farm animal welfare in 2004, passing a bill to phase out the cruel force-feeding of ducks and the sale of foie gras if it comes from that inhumane process," Wayne Pacelle, Humane Society of the United States president, said in a statement.

"The state clearly has the right to ban the sale of the products of animal cruelty," Pacelle continued. He said he expected the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will uphold the law, "as it did in the previous round of litigation."

The Attorney General's office was "reviewing the decision," a spokesman said. He said he couldn't comment on a possible appeal. The state has until Feb. 6 to appeal, so Californian foie gras fans might be wise to gorge themselves on liver while the gorging is good.

Regardless, one provision of the law will remain in place: A ban on the production of foie gras within the state. Because the plaintiffs in the case are foie gras venders, not producers, they did not contest the part of the law that made it illegal to "force feed a bird for the purpose of enlarging the bird’s liver beyond normal size, or hire another person to do so."

That means Wednesday's decision will provide little succor to the Gonzalez family, which owned California-based Sonoma-Artisan Foie Gras until it was forced to shut down in 2012. Reached by phone on Wednesday afternoon, Junny Gonzalez said her husband Guillermo, who was in charge of the foie gras farm, wasn't available to comment on the decision because he was out of the state looking for another place to do business.

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