Hochul and Adams face off over foie gras

SULLIVAN COUNTY, N.Y. — With the New York state government’s ongoing legal attempts to block New York City from banning foie gras, critics say Gov. Kathy Hochul is treating Mayor Eric Adams like chopped liver.

Supporters of the ban on the fatty duck liver delicacy say this is more than just an animal rights issue — it’s a matter of letting New York City govern itself, without state interference.

“What Hochul’s done is just a massive abuse of her power,” said Allie Feldman Taylor, founder and president of Voters for Animal Rights, which advocated for the ban.

Opponents counter New York City is the one that’s overreaching. They say it’s trying to effectively end the force-feeding of ducks that doesn’t happen downstate but rather 100 miles northwest in the Catskills.

The 2019 law, which was overturned by a lower court last year and is caught up in the appeals process, is “unreasonable coming from a local government that has no ducks or farms of its own,” foie gras purveyor Sergio Saravia wrote in a legal filing.

Hochul and Adams’ previously close relationship has been strained by the ongoing struggles to provide housing and services for the 100,000 migrants who have come through the city in the past year. Could a high-end menu item that the mostly vegan Adams wouldn’t touch in the first place put added pressure on the relationship?

How the duck is cooked

The New York City Council passed, and then-Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law, a bill banning the sale and serving of foie gras in November 2019. It was set to take effect three years later, in November 2022, but the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets ordered the city to foie greddaboudit. The city couldn’t implement the ban since it “unreasonably restricts” two foie gras farms’ “operations and on-farm practices” under state law, the agency ruled.

The Adams administration sued, and got a taste of victory Aug. 3 when an Albany County judge struck down the state’s order blocking the city ban as “arbitrary and capricious.”

That decision is being reported here for the first time.

But the waterfowl war is far from over. La Belle and Hudson Valley Foie Gras, the two duck farms party to the case, filed a notice of appeal Aug. 18.

The state could get another shot at the duck issue too. Albany Judge Richard Platkin’s ruling was based on the state’s failure to comprehensively review the legislative history of the bill. Instead, he wrote, the agriculture department relied on “two brief quotations drawn from a multi-thousand page record.” But he gave the state a second chance by allowing the agency to review the farms’ complaints about the law again, and issue a new order based on a more thorough review.

“They’ll probably do it again, they’ll probably reach the same conclusion, and then there will be additional litigation on the actual merits,” said Louis Cholden-Brown, an attorney who was policy director for the City Council when members approved the foie gras ban.

Hochul’s administration declined to comment. But Saravia expects the state to join in the appeal, which could mean years of litigation — while the farms keep on providing foie gras.

“They just want to drag this out as long as possible to keep profiting for as long as possible,” said Bryan Pease, the lawyer representing Voters for Animal Rights. “They’re not going to be able to maintain this completely frivolous position that they have that they can strike down laws wherever they want, just because it might have some indirect upstream effect on a farm somewhere in Upstate New York. If that was the case, then you couldn’t ban anything.”

On the menu

Much like truffles, pulled up from the dirt with the help of pigs, or lobster, pulled up into boats from sea floor traps, foie gras only feels luxurious when it hits the palate.

The dish is made, in part, by force-feeding ducks by sticking a plastic tube down their throats. To some, it’s animal abuse. To others, it’s a culinary tradition dating back to ancient Egypt and embraced in France, which considers foie gras part of its cultural heritage.

It’s a niche food in the United States, with two farms next to each other in the town of Liberty, N.Y., providing most of the country’s supply. La Belle, the smaller of the two, has 42,000 Moulard ducks at any given time, according to Saravia, the farm’s president. (That’s a lot of ducks. Liberty’s human population is just about 10,000.)

In legal filings with near-identical language, both Saravia and Marcus Henley of Hudson Valley Foie Gras said that New York City “represents approximately one-third of the Farm’s sales,” and that losing the market “would jeopardize the very existence of the farm.” Saravia said his farm hasn’t seen any drop off in sales yet, despite the looming ban.

Nearly four years after the city passed its ban, foie gras is still on menus. Daniel, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant on the Upper East Side, even highlights the local nature of the dish, offering “Upstate New York foie gras terrine” on its $188 four-course prix fixe menu.

At three-Michelin-starred Le Bernardin in midtown Manhattan, foie gras comes with the yellowfin tuna, in a foie gras-mushroom-truffle “cake” next to the poached lobster tail and is stuffed into the pan-roasted guinea hen on its $208 prix fixe menu.

The politics of foie gras

De Blasio, who signed the ban, wouldn’t be caught dead at either of those spots, preferring to burnish his progressive credentials by railing against elites. In 2019, he described foie gras as “force-feeding animals to create a luxury product, basically for the wealthy.”

Adams, however, finds himself in a more interesting position as he picks up the battle for the ban. He’s a champion of the restaurant industry and has a preference for the kind of high-end establishments that serve foie gras. Last year, Adams dined with former Gov. Andrew Cuomo at Le Pavillon in Midtown East, which currently serves prime dry-aged beef ribeye in foie gras bordelaise. (Page Six had the scoop about the sit-down but didn’t reveal what Adams had for dinner).

The hospitality industry loves Adams and doesn’t want a ban. “It’s an important part of the culinary experience,” for certain restaurants, said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York Hospitality Alliance. “Losing (foie gras) has not only a financial impact but impacts the culinary experience for restaurants and their guests.”

At the same time, Adams has aligned himself with the animal rights community. Adams famously sticks to a nearly vegan diet, but he’s motivated by the health benefits of eating green more than animal rights. When his then-Office of Brooklyn borough president testified in favor of the bill in 2019, the first focus wasn’t on the health of the birds but of the humans eating it, saying foie gras derives 85 percent of its calories from fat.

While the legal battle pits restaurants against animal rights, it’s also a clear issue of rural versus urban and state versus city power. The mayor’s office declined to comment on the litigation, but animal rights advocate Feldman Taylor thinks it’s the challenge to the municipal home rule law that will keep Adams in the fight.

“The Law Department operates under Mayor Adams, and they have been very clear that they’re taking this very, very seriously,” she said. “This is a law that is intended just for New York City only. It’s not telling those duck farmers what they can or can’t do upstate. They can still produce foie gras. They just can’t sell it in restaurants or grocery stores in New York City.”

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