A Luxury Dish Is Banned, and a Rural County Reels

By John Leland | The New York Times

Marcus Henley, vice president of Hudson Valley Foie Gras, with ducks on the farm in Ferndale, N.Y., Aug. 5, 2019. (Desiree Rios/The New York Times)

NEW YORK — The foie gras truffle torchon at the Beatrice Inn in Greenwich Village is a decadent indulgence: four discs of silky duck-liver mousse paired with triangles of buttery toast, all arranged on a silver platter. The appetizer goes for $28 — a gateway, perhaps, to the menu’s $375 porterhouse steak. The restaurant serves about 200 pounds of foie gras a week.

“There’s nothing like it,” said Angie Mar, the restaurant’s chef and owner.

Last October, when the New York City Council passed a ban on foie gras as inhumane, Mayor Bill de Blasio called foie gras “a luxury item that the vast majority of us would never be able to afford.”

“This,” he added, “is not where we should be shedding a tear.”

But two hours northwest of the city, in one of New York’s poorest counties, foie gras plays a much different role. There, it is not a luxury splurge but a domino in a fragile local economy. Almost all of the foie gras produced in the United States comes from two duck farms in Sullivan County, where about 400 workers, mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America, rely on it for their livelihood.

Locals said that New York City’s ban, which is scheduled to go into effect in 2022, threatens all the businesses connected with the two farms — from the neighboring farms that supply feed for the ducks to the machine shops that repair agricultural equipment, from the small truckers to the local markets and restaurants that cater to the Spanish-speaking workers.

And in a county hit hard by the opioid crisis, one of the few residential drug treatment programs operates in a building owned by one of the duck farms, with support from the farm; the other farm hosts a free health clinic.

The ban singles out a community that is already struggling, said Jen Metzger, a state senator and chairwoman of the committee on agriculture, who said she invited City Council members to visit the farms before voting on the ban but got no takers.

“These farms are connected to the feed mill, the towing and tractor companies, the local banks,” Metzger said. “They add $300,000 into the local school system in property taxes. As legislators, we have to think of all the consequences of the actions we take.”

On a chilly December morning, Tom Bose, 61, who owns a small dairy farm, took a break from loading manure for his fields to outline what foie gras has meant to him and his neighbors. Bose, who also serves as the town supervisor in Callicoon, New York, said he could remember when Sullivan County supported more than 200 dairy farms; now it is down below 20, he said.

“Struggling is an understatement,” he added.

The manure he was loading came from the duck farms, delivered for free as part of an agreement with the state. Without it, Bose said, a farm like his would have to buy $7,500 to $10,000 of chemical fertilizer every year.

“Most farmers here can’t afford that,” he said.

Hudson Valley Foie Gras, the larger of the two farms, is a sprawling artifact of an earlier disruption, on the site of three former egg farms, which closed when the advent of interstate highways made it cheaper for city stores to get eggs from industrial farms elsewhere.

Although the farm sells duck meat and feathers, it depends on foie gras sales to stay afloat, said Marcus Henley, the vice president. New York City is by far its largest market.

Inside one of the farm’s boxy buildings, Emilia León, 50, considered what the ban might mean to her family. León has worked at the farm since she arrived from Puebla, Mexico, in 1997. Like most workers interviewed for this article, she speaks little English and was interviewed through an interpreter. Her husband and daughter also work at the farm. They live rent-free on the property.

León feared for what might happen next if the farm closes down. “I don’t know where we’ll go,” she said. “We’re older, so for us it’s going to be difficult to find a job because they give priority to young people.”

Like other forms of poultry farming and processing, the work is hard, smelly and low-paying, culminating in a fast-moving line to pluck, butcher and package the duck for sales. Workers stand shoulder to shoulder in the steamy processing rooms, each taking a few seconds to put the ducks on hooks, snip off the head or feet, strip the neck, vacuum-seal the breasts.

For León, who feeds the ducks, the workday begins at 6 a.m., with the first feeding, and ends around 1 a.m., when she finishes the third. In between feedings, she grabs what sleep she can in a little white clapboard bungalow provided to her family by the farm. About one-third of the workers live on the farm.

Foie gras, which means “fatty liver” in French, is produced by force-feeding male Moulard ducks — a sterile hybrid of Pekin and Muscovy ducks — through a tube shoved down their throats three times a day during the last three weeks of their lives, a process known as gavage, which expands their livers to 10 times their normal size.

León feeds about 500 ducks in a three-hour shift.

Opponents of foie gras call the force-feeding process cruel. It’s already banned in India, Israel and Britain. Whole Foods stopped selling the product in 1997, and Postmates stopped delivering it in 2018. The American Veterinary Medical Association takes a neutral position, citing a lack of evidence that birds are harmed by the process, although many veterinarians disagree.

Hudson Valley Foie Gras farm sells about $28 million of foie gras per year, and one-third of it ends up in New York City. The other farm, La Belle, sells about $10 million a year, and according to Sergio Saravia, one of the owners, La Belle also sends one-third of its foie gras to the city. Both farms said they could not survive a ban on foie gras in New York.

For the workers, foie gras is a delicacy for a population they rarely see. Nancy Velázquez, 32, a butcher on the assembly line, said she did not resent the people who can afford it. “Just the fact that they’re eating, they give us an opportunity to get ahead in life, and that is a help,” she said.

Her complaints instead were with the City Council for not visiting the farms before voting on the ban. In 2006 Alan Gerson, a councilman, floated a ban but reconsidered after a member of his staff toured the farms, prompting Gerson to acknowledge “a lot of people on both sides of the issue.”

“I think they don’t care about us,” Velázquez said. “They didn’t take the time to look at the animals. They didn’t think that a lot of families depend on this job. What are we going to do?”

Carlina Rivera, the councilwoman from Manhattan who proposed the current ban, declined to be interviewed for this article, but in an earlier interview with The New York Times, she called the force-feeding “the most inhumane process” in the commercial food industry, done “for a purely luxury product.”

A spokesman from Rivera’s office said she did not visit the farms because animal rights advocates and a veterinarian testified that “the tours offered by these farms do not reflect real production methods” but were staged to make the farms look good. The two-year grace period before the ban takes effect, she has said, gives the farms time to adjust.

The farm owners prefer to fight.

Already hurting from a ban in California, which they said cut their sales by 20%, Hudson Valley hired a politically connected lobbying firm, Bolton-St. Johns, and a publicity firm, Millennial Strategies, which represents Lyft, Juul and Starbucks. The farm also revised its feeding process, replacing a foot-long metal tube with a shorter plastic hose, said Jorge Romero, who monitors the fattening of the ducks in the final stage.

“It wasn’t bad for the ducks before,” he said, “but we’re trying to make it look better because we know a lot of people visit us.”

Henley and Saravia made repeated trips to the city to meet with 30 of the 51 council members or their staffs. Henley argued that gavage did not actually hurt the ducks; Saravia laid out the ban’s potential economic impact, especially on farmworkers.

“Very quickly it was apparent that there was more interest in the impact on the people than there was in the physiology of the ducks,” Henley said. “But in the end, it didn’t matter anyway.”

The council approved the ban by a vote of 42-6. Since then, sales to the city at both farms are up 30%.

“We are sold out,” Saravia said in an email. But he was not celebrating. “A slight increase in sales now,” he said, “does not soften or divert the blow we are going to receive.”

The brief boost will mean little to the workers, who expressed a mixture of worry and denial: This couldn’t really happen, could it? Those without legal immigration status worried the most. Some feared even looking for jobs, lest they be detained by immigration officials. Much of their information about the ban was guesswork or rumor.

“To them it’s easy because they’re in the city,” said Edith Cruz, who works at La Belle and cares for her disabled husband in a trailer that was once the Saravia family’s home. “But we’re here in the mountains, and we need those jobs. I don’t think it’s animal abuse, but everyone has their own opinion.”

For some, the farms are a fragile escape from the dangers back home.

At La Belle, Ronal Dubon and Denia Duque and their daughter, Dixy Dubon, 16, clung to their farm life as the only safe life they knew. Dubon left the violence of Honduras in 2004, joining a brother who was working at Hudson Valley. Duque followed in 2010, leaving Dixy with relatives.

Over the next several years, she and her husband settled into a routine at the farm, preparing for the day when their daughter could join them. Then in 2014, two men in Honduras kidnapped Dixy on her way home from school. The men had worked at the duck farms and knew Dixy’s parents.

A brother of Duque tried to rescue Dixy, but the kidnappers killed him on the spot, the family said. Dixy escaped and fled north to her parents, crossing the border with help from a coyote and then requesting asylum.

On a wall of the family home on the farm, a framed certificate from Liberty Middle/High School announced Dixy’s place on the honor roll in 2017; another commended her perfect attendance.

The family is now seeking asylum as a unit. Dubon earns $600 a week working with chickens; Duque, who weighs and sorts the duck livers, earns $380 a week. Like others on the two farms, they send any money they can to family members back home.

The foie gras ban shattered the family’s sense of security, Dubon said.

“Now that we’re finally at peace, working, this happens,” he said. “It destroys us more.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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