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The California Ban on Duck and Goose Foie Gras is Almost Here

As of July 1, 2012, a California law will ban the production and sale of foie gras within the state. That means there is just a short time remaining for the state’s retail specialty food stores, restaurants and consumers to purchase foie gras in California.

As a result of the imminent state-wide ban on sales of foie gras, Mirepoix USA, one of the world’s leading online foie gras retailers, has decided to move its base of operations from California to Reno, Nevada. Other California-based companies will need to follow suit to stay in business.

Why is California prohibiting foie gras sales and production? Let’s talk a bit about the text and meaning of the law before getting into the state’s reasons for imposing the ban, the penalties for violating the law, and the law’s effect on California’s foie gras companies and devotees.

California’s Statutory Ban on Foie Gras

The statute (California State Senate Bill No. 1520 or SB 1520) prohibits the practice of force-feeding birds and the sale of products arising out of that practice if the force-feeding is performed “for the purpose of enlarging the bird’s liver beyond normal size.” Because gavage (the French term for force-feeding through a tube inserted into a bird’s esophagus) is the method foie gras producers typically use to fatten and enlarge a bird’s liver, California’s statute will prohibit the production of any form of duck or goose foie gras. Sales will not be permitted in California no matter where the foie gras is produced.

SB 1520 was signed into law by then-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004. Since that time opposition groups have unsuccessfully attempted to have the law overturned. Enforcement of the ban is scheduled to begin on July 1, 2012.

The State’s Reasons for Banning Duck and Goose Foie Gras and the Opposition’s Response

As with most things in life, there are two sides of the story. Supporters of SB 1520, including many animal rights activists, maintain that gavage is cruel and inhumane. In fact, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Farm Sanctuary, the Animal Protection and Rescue League, and other animal rights groups were instrumental in getting the law on the books. SB 1520 was signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger after sailing through the California legislature.

Naturally, the law’s opponents (foie gras producers, retailers, a number of prominent restaurants and chefs, and foie gras connoisseurs) disagree, denying that gavage is inhumane or constitutes cruelty to animals. They contend there is nothing cruel or inhumane about gavage because (unlike people) ducks and geese do not have a gag reflex. Furthermore, they say, in the wild these birds are accustomed to swallowing fish whole and consuming large quantities of food to gain weight prior to their migratory flights.

Sanctions for Violating California’s Foie Gras Ban and the Law’s Effects on California Businesses and Consumers

Once enforcement of the ban commences on July 1, 2012, California’s police and animal control officers will be authorized to issue citations which will carry fines of up to $1,000 per day per violation. California restaurants will be forced to remove all foie gras dishes from their menus or assume the risk of paying substantial fines. As a practical matter, foie gras enthusiasts will no longer be able to savor the delicacy in any California restaurant.

Likewise, California-based foie gras producers and retailers will be forced to close down their California operations and relocate elsewhere. As mentioned above, Mirepoix USA has already moved to Nevada, but other companies will be affected too, including Sonoma Foie Gras. Hudson Valley Foie Gras, a prominent New York foie gras producer, has modified its production techniques. It has also been striving to arrive at standards for foie gras production that California would consider humane and acceptable. However, as of the date of this writing, no acceptable standard has been established and companies will be forced to relocate or pay crippling fines.

Unquestionably, it will be burdensome for foie gras producers and retailers to leave California, but the real losers here may be the state’s consumers. Although they will be able to physically leave the state, buy duck and goose foie gras from retailers located elsewhere and then bring it back to California, they will not be able to buy it online and have it shipped to a California address. And obviously, the state’s foie gras enthusiasts will no longer be able to enjoy their favorite delicacy in the state’s finer restaurants.

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