On November 25, 2022, a foie gras ban takes effect in New York City, threatening the financial health of Hudson Valley Foie Gras and La Belle Farms, two of Sullivan County’s largest employers. …
On November 25, 2022, a foie gras ban takes effect in New York City, threatening the financial health of Hudson Valley Foie Gras and La Belle Farms, two of Sullivan County’s largest employers. The ban—spearheaded by city Councilmember Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan)—has put at risk hundreds of Sullivan County jobs and the fiscal well-being of tens of ancillary businesses. In January 2019, the month Rivera introduced the ban, the Coalition for the Homeless was reporting, “New York City reached yet another dismal milestone in the history of modern mass homelessness: An all-time record 63,839 men, women, and children slept in shelters each night.” Meanwhile, at New York City Hall, the food fight over foie gras raged on.
From the vantage of Ferndale, the city council hearings were rapidly devolving into polarized camps. There was Good. And there were the Foie Gras Farmers. “New York City councilman Justin Brannan (D-Brooklyn) had a tattoo on his neck—Meat is Murder,” Sergio Saravia, co-owner of La Belle Farms, recalled. City council member Helen Rosenthal (D-Manhatttan) wore the activists’ blue “ban foie gras” T-shirt to the hearings.
Present at the hearings was Izzy Yanay, co-founder of Hudson Valley and its predecessor Commonwealth, the man who, with business partner Michael Ginor, put foie gras on restaurant tables across America. Yanay, Saravia, and others were convinced the city council was tone-deaf to the harm a ban would reap. The two men opened their barn doors wide, inviting any and all members of the city council to visit, at any time, to learn about gavage and animal husbandry at their farms.
“Send someone to see it with their own eyes before you make a decision that will affect the world,” Yanay told the city council.
“We went to everybody. We told the city council: we’ll bring you to our facility. We are here with our door open. This affects everybody,” Saravia said. “Maybe not in New York City but in Sullivan County, it affects everybody.”
Farm visits had been a game changer. In 2008, then-NYS assemblyman Michael Benjamin (D-79 Bronx) introduced a bill in the state legislature to ban foie gras, said Marcus Henley, vice president of operations at Hudson Valley. So Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther (D-100 Sullivan and Orange) thought he should see gavage up close, and brought him on a tour. “After I brought one assemblyperson to the farms and showed him the feeding process,” said Gunther, “he pulled the bill.”
Broome County’s assemblywoman Donna Lupardo (D-123) chairs the agriculture committee, and spends a lot of time touring New York farms with her constituents. “They not only get to walk in the shoes of the farmer,” she said, “but to learn how crucial those operations are to the local economy.”
Life on the foie gras farms has a certain rhythm, measured in increments of up to 105 days. On Day One, day-old moulards arrive at Hudson Valley and La Belle from La Ferme du Platon, a hatchery in Quebec, about 10,000 at a time. The ducklings are sexed and placed in open-barn nurseries for four weeks, when the maturing birds are moved to cage-free growing barns. Week nine, the female moulards are slaughtered.
After week eight (Day 85), the males are sent to open-pen gavage barns, where liver cultivation begins in earnest. Hector Saravia, co-owner of La Belle, designed the feeding tube in use there since 2011, since 2017 at Hudson Valley. It is a slender rubber tube, smaller in diameter than a garden hose, seven inches long, and transparent in color.
To Saravia, who traveled in Canada and France studying gavage, safe practices mean healthier ducks and the highest quality liver. “It is important to increase the food level incrementally, starting at 70 grams and increasing by 10 grams every night,” Saravia said. “If a duck eats too much, he refuses food at the next feeding. If the feeding process is flawed, the foie gras turns red.” Hudson Valley and La Belle reward farmworkers with a bonus for clean livers and careful handling of the ducks.
Victoria Marcial, from Veracruz, is a duck feeder at Hudson Valley whose employment includes housing. She earns $12.75 per hour, around $700 a week with bonuses. “I live in a trailer with three other people. The trailer has a washer and a dryer,” she said. “I buy most of my food from food trucks [at the farm] but sometimes, I buy food at ShopRite in Liberty or in Newburgh—if I can get a ride.”
“I am responsible for all three feedings every day during that three-week period. I work seven days a week and then I have time off,” she said.
Feeders deliver mushy grain,“48 percent corn and soy, 52 percent water,” through feeding tubes for three to five seconds into the gullets, three times a day. There are one to three feeders in each barn, depending on the number of ducks and each farm’s practices. “Hudson Valley does not treat the ducks bad,” Marcial said.
Alfonso Romero, who is 67 and has worked as a supervisor for 35 years inside Hudson Valley’s gavage barns, agrees. “I was a feeder for two years, then I was promoted,” he said. “I work six days a week—Sundays off.”
The male moulards at La Belle spend two weeks in gavage. The ducks at Hudson Valley spend three weeks before being sent to the slaughterhouse, where death is swift.
Almost all parts of the duck are utilized. The foie gras (liver) and magret de canard (breast, thighs and legs) are sold to restaurants and markets. The skin and duck fat are distributed for rendering: feathers for bedding and clothing, carcasses and bones for pet food.
“The way Hudson Valley and La Belle farms treat those ducks is very humane,” said Dr. Joseph Nebzydoski of Youngsville Veterinary Clinic, a University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School of Medicine graduate, who inspected and certified the ducks for foreign export.
Romero was banking on Nebzydoski’s words and bet on a city council visit. He had hoped the council members would consider them, he said. “We will be out of work.”
Rivera slammed the barn door on Romero’s optimism, declining Yanay and Saravia’s offer to visit the foie gras farms and accusing the farmers of staging tours. Rivera told Crain’s, through her spokesperson, she had “concerns regarding the validity of the tours.”
“It is emblematic of the way the city council has approached this issue,” NYS Senator Mike Martucci (R-42 Sullivan, Delaware and Ulster) said. “They passed legislation without seeing for themselves the process they were outlawing.”
“I think there is an obligation to take that time,” Lupardo said, especially if you’re going to pass laws and impact the livelihood of a whole county.”
“Carlina Rivera did not want the truth to get in the way of politics” Henley said. “She and her colleagues on the council did not come to visit the farm. Not one.”
Next week: Part 4, Waiting for Carlina—Sullivan County’s fragile economy and the future of foie gras on tenterhooks.
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