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In California, Foie Gras Is Back On The Menu


On Wednesday, California's culinary scene erupted when a federal judge overturned a ban on foie gras. The delicacy made of goose or duck livers - the standard practice is to fatten them by force feeding - has been banned in the state since 2012 thanks to a state law passed back in 2004. The decision to lift the ban wasn't a judgment about whether the practice is animal cruelty or not. It has to do with state versus federal jurisdiction over food products. After the ban went into effect in 2012, it was challenged by a group of foie gras producers in Canada and New York and a group of three restaurants, including Hot's Kitchen here in Hermosa Beach. Lawyer Michael Tenenbaum represented all three plaintiffs.

MICHAEL TENENBAUM: There are certain culinary hubs around the country. California happens to have a lot of them - LA, San Francisco, Napa. And so this was about 25 percent of the market for my Canadian clients and about 20 to 25 percent of the market for Hudson Valley in New York. So there was a huge economic impact when the ban went into effect. And we're now going to hopefully see the restoration of all this - these sales.

RATH: Sean Chaney is the owner and chef at Hot's Kitchen.

SEAN CHANEY: We had to take about three or four items off the menu. And they were, you know, higher-ticket items. And, you know, you lose those - it didn't drive our business out of business, but it definitely takes a hit at the end of the month. And even one percent to your bottom line is a huge percent. We're on thin margins here, and that makes a big difference.

RATH: So when the news came down on Wednesday, Chaney called supplier and fellow plaintiff, Hudson Valley Foie Gras, to celebrate.

CHANEY: The first things were congratulations. How much do you need me to send you (laughter)? So I've got to call them again to have more sent tomorrow. We could run out tonight. It goes to show that people are asking for it.

RATH: The shipment arrived in time for lunch. So today, there's a special five-item menu, all with foie gras. It's been a very busy day in the kitchen.

UNIDENTIFIED CHEF: So I'm searing this and I'm going to put it in the oven and let it get to the right consistency, temperature and put it together.

RATH: This is the foie burger.

CHANEY: So this is - you're on a brioche bun. The meat we grind in-house with a little brie cheese, huckleberry compote, seared foie gras on top and a little bit of a honey whole-grain mustard.

RATH: That was the most popular choice at lunch earlier, when a big crowd had come to Hot's Kitchen to celebrate the ruling. Protesters from the organization PETA picketed outside. In fact, the moment I arrived at Hot's, Chaney had to excuse himself for a phone call with the FBI. They wanted to suss out the credibility of a death threat he'd received. Chaney said he's not worried. PETA calls foie gras torture in a tin. And here's what Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of The Humane Society, has to say.

WAYNE PACELLE: Of all agricultural practices involving the rearing of animals, this is the only one we're aware where animals are intentionally overfed, radically overfed, in order to swell the size of their liver in order to then kill the animal and harvest the liver. We think it's bizarre and it's unhealthy and it's certainly inhumane.

RATH: But what does the typical Californian think? We ask Allie Gard, who was sitting at the bar.

Did you know about the lifting of the foie gras ban?

ALLIE GARD: No, I did not know about it.

TARA REINHARDT: Or even that it was banned.

GARD: No, tell me more.

RATH: I explained the process to Gard and her friend, Tara Reinhardt. They're pretty grossed out.

GARD: Animal cruelty, is that what we're talking about here?

RATH: Having had no opinion a minute ago, Reinhardt has now taken a side.

REINHARDT: I don't want the ban lifted.

RATH: But she's not going to join the protesters.

REINHARDT: A restaurant can serve whatever the hell they want. I'm still going to go to it. It's a free country. You can do what you want. Am I going to eat this specific thing? No.

RATH: On Thursday, the LA Times published an editorial calling for California Attorney General Kamala Harris to repeal the decision. But her office has had no comment on whether that might actually happen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.