Foie gras distributor slapped with lawsuit 24 hours after NYC’s new foie ban

The suit alleges that the country’s largest distributor is misleading the public by calling its foie “humane, natural, low-stress, and hand-fed.”

Voters for Animal Rights, a Brooklyn, New York-based animal rights advocacy group that lobbied for yesterday’s successful foie gras ban, has filed suit in the Eastern District of New York, alleging that D’Artagnan, the country’s largest distributor of foie gras, misleads the public with “deceptive acts and practices” and false advertising that violates state business law.

The group isn’t seeking monetary damages—just an injunction to stop D’Artagnan, the Union, New Jersey-based specialty foods distributor, from marketing its foie as “humane, natural, low stress and ‘hand-fed.’” 

According to the complaint, D’Artagnan claims that it sources its product from Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Ferndale, New York, where ducks are “never caged,” have “space to roam” in “open-air barns,” and grow up in “low stress” conditions. 

But, the advocacy group says, the farm’s own promotional videos show ducks crammed in dense, warehouse-style barns, and held in wire-sided cages during feeding. The suit further accuses the distributor of misleading the public by describing gavage, a process of force-feeding ducks with a long, rigid tube, as “hand-feeding.”

“All we have ever asked is to have a public forum to have this debate, so if it takes a courtroom to have this public forum, bring it on.”

A 2013 settlement prevents Hudson Valley from using the word “humane” to describe its foie gras, but D’Artagnan was not a party in that lawsuit.

The current complaint cites investigations from animal rights groups to support its claims, though the most recent information comes from 2013. Necropsies conducted in the early 2000s by a veterinarian, Anne Kincaid, and a progress report by a state wildlife pathologist, Ward Stone, found multiple ducks were severely congested and died from food in their lungs. Footage taken by activist groups in 2008 and 2013 shows ducks covered in blood, huddled in cages, and pulled by their wings toward feeding tubes. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) alleges ruptured organs are common, and the birds are force-fed with metal tubes, which can cause them to choke to death.

Marcus Henley, the manager of Hudson Valley Foie Gras, denies those allegations.

“Metal tubes are used to make foie gras in different places and at different times,” he says. “It’s not detrimental to the welfare of the ducks. All of the other stuff is untrue and just complete garbage.”

Even if conditions have changed at Hudson Valley, the largest foie farm in the United States, “foie gras is produced through force-feeding, and force-feeding is by its very nature cruel and inhumane,” says Matthew Dominguez, a political advisor for Voters for Animal Rights.

Andy Wertheim, the president of D’Artagnan, declined to comment on the allegations, but said his company isn’t concerned about the lawsuit.

“All we have ever asked is to have a public forum to have this debate, so if it takes a courtroom to have this public forum, bring it on,” he says.

Meanwhile, some chefs believe activists are fighting the wrong war.

“I think people who are raising chickens terribly and coming up with this very inexpensive chicken meat that doesn’t resemble what farmed chickens look like—I think that’s where we should go after,” says Jamie Bissonnette, chef and co-owner of Toro, a chain of five restaurants that serve foie gras dishes. “I think we should go after why we’re buying super processed foods, that we can’t identify the source of, for children in public schools.”

 Voters for Animal Rights is demanding the case go to trial, but no dates have been set. 

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.