Food & Drink

Foie gras can go back on menus, judge rules

Seared foie gras on pain perdue, with fig and arugula is seen at Mulvaney’s B&L restaurant in Sacramento on June 19, 2012. Foie gras, or fatty liver, is considered among the world’s great delicacies but others shudder at the force-feeding methods it takes to engorge animal livers.
Seared foie gras on pain perdue, with fig and arugula is seen at Mulvaney’s B&L restaurant in Sacramento on June 19, 2012. Foie gras, or fatty liver, is considered among the world’s great delicacies but others shudder at the force-feeding methods it takes to engorge animal livers. Sacramento Bee file

Foie gras is back. Mulvaney’s B&L and other restaurants around California were scrambling to make last-minute changes to Wednesday night’s menu. For the first time in more than two years, foie gras can be sold legally in California.

A U.S. District Court judge on Wednesday lifted the ban on foie gras, the fatty duck or goose liver that’s considered a delicacy in culinary circles, but among the most reviled ingredients by animal rights activists.

Foie gras is created by force feeding ducks and geese via a funnel to engorge their livers, a process called gavage. A ban on producing and selling foie gras went into effect in California on July 1, 2012.

That changed Wednesday when U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Wilson ruled that California ordinances outlawing the force feeding of birds were superseded by provisions of the federal Poultry Products Inspections Act. In short, state laws were overreaching and foie gras is now free to appear on California menus.

“It’s a great day in liver land,” said a jubilant sounding Patrick Mulvaney, chef and proprietor of Mulvaney’s B&L. “I almost want to make it like a big birthday cake with a candle in it.”

Mulvaney planned to list foie gras on the menu starting with Wednesday night’s dinner service. But the delicacy has always remained at his restaurant, despite the ban. Like other pro-foie gras chefs in California, Mulvaney regularly served foie gras by taking advantage of a loophole in the law.

Although foie gras was forbidden to be sold, some chefs simply offered it to guests for free, or it arrived as a complimentary accompaniment with toast points or another dish.

Chefs were burning up Twitter celebrating the ruling. “It feels a little like December of 1933,” tweeted Michael Cimarusti, chef of Providence restaurant in Los Angeles, referring to the end of Prohibition.

People for Ethical Treatment of Animals slammed the cheering in a statement from president Ingrid E. Newkirk: “Foie gras is French for ‘fatty liver,’ and ‘fathead’ is the American word for the shameless chefs who actually need a law to make them stop serving the swollen, near-bursting organ of a cruelly force-fed bird.

“A line will be drawn in the sand outside any restaurant that goes back to serving this ‘torture in a tin,’ ” it vows. “And whoever crosses that line identifies themselves with gluttony that cannot control itself even to the point of torturing animals.”

Mulvaney also received pushback over the last two years from animal rights activists, including protests at his restaurant. Now he’s in a celebratory mood, and expecting an order of 20 lobes of foie gras to be delivered in the next day or so.

“For us as chefs, we’re stoked,” said Mulvaney. “Foie gras is unique and has been used for 5,000 years. This feels like vindication for those of us who were interested in overturning the ban.”

Ken Frank, chef and owner of La Toque restaurant in Napa, said he jumped up and down for joy upon hearing the foie gras ban was lifted. Frank has been among California’s most outspoken chefs in urging a repeal the foie gras ban. In June, he hosted “The State of American Foie Gras” at La Toque, featuring complimentary foie gras-focused menu.

The foie gras fight still isn’t over. Wednesday’s decision by a federal judge was related to the selling of foie gras in California, but not issues related to its possible production in the state.

The ban had been challenged by the Hot’s Restaurant Group in California (which includes Four Daughters in Manhattan Beach and Hot’s Kitchen in Hermosa Beach); 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 that the law was unconstitutional because it interferes with an existing federal law that regulates poultry products.

Last year, the courts rejected a different argument against the state ban – that it improperly tried to regulate interstate commerce. But the new argument – referred to by lawyers as “pre-emption” – succeeded.

A coalition of animal rights groups, including the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Humane Society, released a joint statement vowing to appeal. “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.”

For now, foie gras devotees can celebrate.

Shortly after the news broke, Frank and his staff were mulling which foie gras preparation would be added to the menu for Wednesday’s dinner service.

“We’ll have a big tasting here in about an hour,” said Frank. “Only one dish on the menu tonight needs to change, and it’ll be on for the first time since July 1, 2012.”

Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias. The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

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