Menus across the Bay Area were being hastily rewritten Wednesday after a federal judge struck down California’s ban on foie gras, allowing restaurants to serve up the delicacy for the first time in two years.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson in Los Angeles ruled that the state prohibition on the sale of foie gras, a fatty liver dish made from force-fed ducks and geese, illegally encroached upon the regulatory domain of the federal government.
California lawmakers passed the groundbreaking ban in 2004 amid concern that force-feeding poultry is inhumane. The law took effect eight years later, immediately putting a crimp in California’s dining scene, where the French-inspired fare is celebrated at many high-end restaurants for its rich, creamy flavor.
“It goes on the menu tonight,” said Ken Frank, chef and owner of Michelin-starred La Toque in Napa. “All of my sous chefs are jumping up and down. This means chefs in California can cook with their favorite ingredient, just like chefs everywhere else in the world.”
Wednesday’s decision was based on the federal Poultry Products Inspections Act, which regulates the sale and distribution of birds and expressly prohibits states from imposing certain conditions on food. Wilson said California’s foie gras ban had done just that.
Last year, the courts dismissed a different argument against the law that claimed it interfered with interstate commerce. The U.S. Supreme Court in October denied review of that ruling.
Businesses challenge ban
The ban, which specifically outlawed force-feeding birds for the purpose of enlarging their livers and selling them, was challenged by poultry producer Hudson Valley Foie Gras of New York, Hot’s Restaurant Group in Southern California and the Canadian trade organization Association des Eleveurs de Canards et d’Oies du Quebec. The state attorney general’s office defended the prohibition.
In Wednesday’s ruling, Wilson acknowledged that emotions ran high over the matter, writing that his 15-page opinion “touches upon a topic impacting gourmands’ stomachs and animal-rights activists’ hearts.”
Accordingly, reaction was swift if not widespread, as food-frenzied Californians took to social media to praise the end of their time without foie gras while the ban’s supporters lamented the plight of the animals.
A spokesman for the state attorney general’s office said the agency was reviewing the decision. An appeal is possible.
Animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was among those to criticize Wednesday’s ruling.
“The decision can’t change the fact that foie gras, the diseased liver of force-fed ducks and geese, comes from blatant animal abuse,” said PETA attorney Matthew Strugar.
Production of the dish often entails feeding the birds more than they normally eat, commonly through uncomfortable feeding tubes and sometimes swelling and puncturing the animals’ innards.
Still illegal to produce
Strugar noted that, under Wednesday’s ruling, production of foie gras remains illegal in California, though the point is less relevant because California had just one producer before the ban took effect in 2012. Restaurants are free to import it from other states, which many had done before the ban.
Marcus Henley, operations manager for Hudson Valley Foie Gras, defended the delicacy as a humane dish made and served in compliance with all U.S. regulatory standards.
“We’ve always contended and have had a lot of support from veterinarians and farmers that our process is acceptable agriculture,” he said.
Roland Passot, the chef and owner of La Folie in San Francisco, was among the first to get in touch with Hudson Valley Foie Gras on Wednesday.
“As soon as I heard the news, I placed my order. I think a lot of people will be excited,” Passot said.
Foie gras was running about $40 a pound this week, Passot said. That was about $5 more than it was in 2012.
Appetizer or entree
Diners typically pay $15 to $25 for a foie gras appetizer, depending on the restaurant, while pricier places often include it as a regular course on prix fixe menus.
To commemorate Wednesday’s ruling, San Francisco’s Dirty Habit offered a four-course foie gras meal for $60.
Though foie gras became less common on Bay Area menus during the ban, it didn’t deter all restaurants from serving it. A number of chefs, including Frank at La Toque, flouted the law, offering the dish as a “complimentary” addition to a more expensive burger or salad.
Douglas Keane, a Sonoma County chef formerly with Cyrus in Healdsburg, said repeal of the prohibition was long overdue.
California is the only U.S. state to have passed such a law. The city of Chicago passed a restriction but later overturned it amid outcry.
“It was such a stupid ban to begin with,” Keane said. “Now we don’t look like a bunch of idiots anymore. Now you get to choose for yourself whether you want to serve this based on your own ethical decisions.”
Foie gras is back
Here is a sampling of Bay Area restaurants that immediately began serving the delicacy after a judge’s decision to strike down California’s ban:
Dirty Habit (San Francisco)
Goose & Gander (St. Helena)
Hapa Ramen (S.F.)
La Toque (Napa)
Les Clos (S.F.)
4505 Burgers & BBQ (S.F.)