Waiting for Carlina

Part I: Fowl Play

A deep dive into the effect of the New York City foie gras ban on Sullivan County’s economy

By HELEN DEMERANVILLE
Posted 11/2/21

SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — November 25, 2019, was a brutal day for Sullivan County’s foie gras farmers—Hudson Valley Foie Gras (HVFG) and La Belle Farms. The problem was not in the …

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Waiting for Carlina

Part I: Fowl Play

A deep dive into the effect of the New York City foie gras ban on Sullivan County’s economy

Posted

SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — November 25, 2019, was a brutal day for Sullivan County’s foie gras farmers—Hudson Valley Foie Gras (HVFG) and La Belle Farms. The problem was not in the numbers. Both businesses were sailing along, generating record-breaking profits, somewhere in the vicinity of $50 million. The problem was in New York City.  

On January 24, New York City council member Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan) had introduced a bill (Intro 1378) “in relation to banning the sale or provision of certain force-fed poultry products,” namely “foie gras” (French for fatty liver), the raison d’etre for Hudson Valley and La Belle’s existence.  

Under attack was their lifeblood, the New York City market, one-third of the farmers’ yearly revenue. The foie gras ban, as Rivera’s bill was dubbed, aimed straight for the heart of the farms. It put hundreds of Sullivan County jobs at risk and affected tens of ancillary businesses, threatening the tax base.

Behind Rivera were the powerful Humane Society of the United States and the Brooklyn-based activist organization Voters for Animal Rights (VFAR). Early on, VFAR’s website promised  that not a single New York City job will be lost by passing a ban to prohibit the sale of foie gras from force-fed birds.  

In Sullivan County, those were fighting words. “If you want a foie gras war, you’ll have it,” Sergio Saravia, who owns La Belle with his two brothers and Herman Lee, told Rivera and the city council, but they felt no one was listening.

On November 25, 2019, the bill was sent to Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-NYC) for his signature. And with a swipe of a pen, like a slash across a duck’s neck, foie gras was outlawed in New York City. Date effective: November 25, 2022. Hudson Valley and La Belle were doing business in the Big Apple on borrowed time.

At the core of the conflict is gavage, the practice of force-feeding male Moulard ducks and engorging their livers up to 10-fold the normal size. The process involves a rubber feeding tube, which for two to three weeks before slaughter, three times a day, is inserted down a duck’s gullet, filling it with feed. This cultivates the fatty liver, considered “the supreme fruit of gastronomy” by connoisseurs worldwide. Gavage, critics say, damages the esophagus and diseases the liver. Without gavage, foie gras cannot be produced en masse.

To Rivera and her supporters, gavage causes ducks “extreme pain and suffering,” is “egregiously cruel,” and “gruesome.” To the foie gras farmers, it is an ancient practice utilizing new and evolving technology to minimize harm.

Marcus Henley has worked at Hudson Valley for 20 years and is vice president of operations. “The NYC politicians are sensitive to animals (or anthropomorphizing) and mostly well-intentioned but with a limited understanding of animal husbandry,” Henley said. “Almost everything you hear about foie gras is verifiably wrong.”

“These animals have to be wholesome. These animals have to survive. If the ducks are not cared for, if you don’t have a good liver, you just throw away all your profit,” Saravia said.

In 2014, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) conducted their last literature review of animal welfare concerns surrounding the science of foie gras farming. As of October 29, 2021, their spokesperson said, “There is no AVMA policy or position on foie gras production.”

Small consolation to an economy on the chopping block. Sullivan County, a mostly rural county with under 80,000 residents, boasts only a handful of businesses that employ more than 250 workers. By those standards, Hudson Valley and La Belle are among its largest employers, together counting between 300 and 400 farmworkers.  

“The foie gras farms are an important business in our area,” says NYS Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther (D-100, Sullivan and Orange counties), who sits on the assembly’s committee on agriculture. “A lot of people stand to lose their jobs,” including employees of ancillary businesses.

Hudson Valley Foie Gras and La Belle are America’s biggest foie gras farmers, producing 90 percent of the nation’s foie gras. Tens of Sullivan County businesses are on their balance sheets. Add it all up—the jobs, the taxes, the sales in local stores—and in 2019, an estimated $150 million was circulating in Sullivan County because of Hudson Valley and La Belle.

Three generation of Nearings have run Cochecton Mills, a company their grandfather bought in 1956. They supply 100 percent of the feed for the ducks at Hudson Valley Foie Gras and La Belle Farms. La Belle alone, the smaller of the two, requires grain for 182,000 ducks per year. It’s a healthy business for a feed company.

Dennis Nearing, the family patriarch, was 11 when his father bought the business. “It was an exciting time,” he said. “I liked animals, farming. But it’s a very hard, complicated business.”

Today, Cochecton Mills is close to losing two mainstay accounts, and the Nearings don’t like it.

“The foie gras farms are by far our biggest customer. They amount to about 30 percent of our business. We have two guys in the mill mixing and managing their feed. We have seven drivers. Twenty-five to 30 percent of their week is foie gras,” said Todd Nearing, Dennis’ son, who works closely with the foie gras farmers.

The looming ban hits far too close to the farm. In 2019, Cochecton Mills spent $1.2 million on new equipment to process food for the ducks, betting big on foie gras with substantial infrastructure investments.

“For a lot of us, life as we know it is threatened. We will lose jobs. It threatens our livelihood,” Nearing said.

Carlina Rivera and her staff were asked for a comment and one was not received by deadline.

On June 18, 2019, Rivera’s colleague Mark Levine (D-Manhattan), who chairs the council health committee, made clear where he stands. “I am proud of the pace at which New York City has been advancing animal welfare legislation in recent years.”

He has long been known as a friend to animals.  In 2014, the city’s campaign finance board slapped the Levine campaign with an $8,686 fine for accepting improper contributions from New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets (NYCLASS). NYCLASS is a non-profit animal rights group, and founded by Steve Nislick, a real estate developer.

“New York City,” Todd Nearing said, “should stay out of our game.”

This is Part One of a four-part series examining the effects of New York City’s foie gras ban on Sullivan County’s economy. In Part Two, “Waiting for Carlina,” more than 100 Sullivan County business owners and foie gras workers traveled to Manhattan to make their case before the NYC Council and left, as one worker put it, feeling “very disrespected.”

Want to catch up on the full story?

Part I: Fowl Play

Part II: All duck or no dinner

Part III: The wheat from the chaff

Part IV: Ducks out of water

Part V: Down and dirty at city hall

Comments

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  • carlginsburg

    Nice work!

    Tuesday, November 2, 2021 Report this

  • JohnG

    I have to admit I've never tried foie gras, so I'm a little chagrined I found this article so compelling. Clearly it's a difficult moral and economic issue, and nuances tend to get trampled when they have to be decided through the political process. But they came through cogently and clearly in this article, thanks to Ms. Demeranville's thoughtful and evenhanded reporting.

    Looking forward to the rest of the series, and more local journalism like this.

    Wednesday, November 3, 2021 Report this

  • Hickory Hank

    Fascinating article. I didn't know anything about this industry in Sullivan County because I presumed with its French name that foie gras was imported from France! I admit to being conflicted about this because it seems like New York City is giving the ducks a much deserved break. But the lucky ducks will cause a loss of jobs in an area that really needs them. I hope the foie gras people can come up with a new product that will make some money and keep their people at work.

    Friday, November 5, 2021 Report this

  • hdalabama

    Hmmm ... Hickory Hank must be from the Old Country or NYC. Unlike Carlina and her colleagues at the City Council, before you p*** judgement on ga***e, and condemn Sullivan County to enormous job loss and revenue decline to the tune of $150 million, come and see how the ducks are treated at Hudson Valley Foie Gras and La Belle Farms for yourself. Retooling farms can require $$$ and that doesn’t address the needs of the ancillary businesses who rely on the foie gras farms to help keep their companies up and running. Dislication destroys the lives of working people. The foie gras farms have an open door policy. We welcome visitors in Sullivan County.

    Friday, November 5, 2021 Report this

  • Hickory Hank

    Much more like a Henry from Hickory Lane.

    Banning foie gras is a big trend everywhere so it was probably not a surprise to Sullivan County producers that it came to New York City. Food business trends are forever changing. Vegetable centered diets are on a steep rise and that's not good news if you're in the live duck stuffing business -- now matter how genteel the stuffing process is. There's been two years notice of this ban already and another year to go. It's a tough situation but as one of my heroes Jack Welch once said, “Change before you have to.”

    Friday, November 5, 2021 Report this

  • hdalabama

    Howdy Hank, I’d forgotten your old pal Neutron Jack. He ran GE like the ideal weapon …100,000 plus layoffs during his tenure … The people were dead, but the buildings remained intact.

    Sounds like the NY City Council took a lesson from his playbook and aimed straight for Sullivan County.

    According to a 2020 Vegetarian Resource Group Harris Poll, only 6 percent of respondents identified as Vegetarian (including Vegans).

    Which brings us to Suzy Welch, Neutron’s widow, and the new McDonald’s McPlant burger (now that’s an appetizing name). The non-meat patty is produced by Beyond Meat — a company Welch bet big on.

    More than 1000 restaurants in New York City currently serve foie gras. Why? Because their customers enjoy it. Why impose a Nanny State? Let the consumers vote with their feet.

    Saturday, November 6, 2021 Report this

  • Hickory Hank

    Thanks for confirming the huge growth in vegetarians -- now around the population of California -- and the largest section of which is among young people. And as everyone in the food business knows consumption of meat products is in sharp decline -- 12% in the last year alone in the US according to Bloomberg as health concerns and plant consumption continue to rise.

    But I digress. The production and consumption of foie gras is in sharp decline across the world because the production process is widely believed to be very cruel. Getting NYC to overturn their decision is not realistic -- there's not much of a live duck stuffing constituency down there. You can argue with that attitude and call it hypocritical etc. but that's beside the point. If you're in a declining business you need to diversify. If like the foie gras folks you're given three years warning common sense dictates you take advantage of it.

    Monday, November 8, 2021 Report this

  • hdalabama

    Ending worker dislocation should be a top priority of the New York City Council and not just in NYC but when the NYC Democrats spearheaded a vote to ban the sale of foie gras, they put hundreds of jobs in Sullivan County at risk -- and not just on the foie gras farms. Since when do Democrats care more about ducks than people? On the same subject but a different note, an informative and entertaining video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gc73t0_0E_w

    Wednesday, November 10, 2021 Report this