November 25, 2021 starts the one-year countdown until New York City officially bans the sale of foie gras, French for fatty liver, a shot to the heart of Sullivan County’s foie gras farms. …
November 25, 2021 starts the one-year countdown until New York City officially bans the sale of foie gras, French for fatty liver, a shot to the heart of Sullivan County’s foie gras farms. Hudson Valley Foie Gras (HVFG) and La Belle Farms are two of Sullivan County’s biggest businesses. New York City, their largest market, is the lifeblood of the farms, constituting one-third of their yearly revenue. The NYS Agriculture and Markets Commissioner is currently reviewing the legality of the ban.
If the ban stands, workers and ancillary businesses throughout the county will be hit hard. An estimated $150 million annually is at stake.
A review of hundreds of pages of documents and testimony from the hearings on June 18, 2019, before the NY City Council raises serious questions about the credibility of the record in support of the foie gras ban. One key witness, Holly Cheever, DVM, is known for creative story-telling.
There is a story about a cow—a Brown Swiss dairy cow—who gave birth to twins. Twinning is rare in cows, but the Brown Swiss are more prolific, delivering twins about once in 11 births. This cow, the mother of twins, had agency, according to Cheever, a member of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (HSVMA) leadership council: the cow made “a bovine’s ‘Sophie’s Choice.’” She “brought one calf to the farmer and kept one hidden in the woods,” preventing the bull calf from going, like its twin, “to the hell of the veal crate.”
Cheever, a lifetime equine veterinarian, is well-educated and revered by the anti-foie gras movement, having visited Hudson Valley Foie Gras three times—in 1991, 1997 and 2005. Her testimony is featured prominently on the Voter For Animal Rights (VFAR) website. Cheever and Marcus Henley, vice president of operations for Hudson Valley, agree on just one thing: Cheever’s last visit to Hudson Valley Foie Gras was in November 2005.
In evidence presented to the city council, Cheever raised the idea that Hudson Valley farm tours are staged, calling the visits “artificial tours” and “specialized ‘sanitized’ tours.” Autopsies of duck “carcasses,” Cheever said, “reveal ruptured esophagi and ruptured livers, grossly swollen and discolored livers, and a host of internal and external infections, including pneumonia.” The autopsies were performed in 2005 or earlier and the number of ducks examined is not disclosed. A deep dive into the literature indicates that as few as six moulards were autopsied. There are four gavage barns at HVFG and up to 4,000 ducks per barn can be in gavage on any given day.
Herve Breuil of Woodstock Farm Sanctuary testified for the foie gras ban based mainly on investigations of foie gras production “in France.” Ben Williamson, World Animal Protection, pointed to only one video taken at the Sullivan County farms and did not date it. Mercy for Animals put forward their most recent video of Hudson Valley’s ducks: 2013. And New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets (NYCLASS), an animal justice and social justice organization, dedicated to banning NYC’s horse-drawn carriages, spoke movingly for the foie gras ban: “Such cruelty has no place in this world.”
The health effects of foie grasDr. Michael Greger submitted his study “Amyloid fibrils: potential food safety implications (2008)” for the record. It was referenced multiple times by supporters of the ban as proof that foie gras is linked to food safety and health issues in humans, including rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and type II diabetes, among other conditions. However, Gregor’s conclusion states: “[T]here are apparently no published epidemiological studies involving foie gras. There appear few data on dietary amyloidosis risk factors in general (cite omit).” In 2008, Greger was Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture, Humane Society of the United States.
NYCLASS is known for putting its money where it shouldn’t be. The organization was fined repeatedly for illegal campaign contributions during the 2014 election cycle, including to council member Mark Levine (D-Manhattan) and mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio (D), among others.
In 2014, NYCLASS launched “Bullies for Christine Quinn” and dedicated $200,000 to taking the city council speaker out of the NYC Democratic primary for mayor. Quinn was a thorn in the side of animal rights advocates, having blocked a bill in 2006, before it was introduced, to ban foie gras.
However, at the core of the anti-Quinn campaign was her opposition to a ban on horse-drawn carriages, which incurred the wrath of NYCLASS founder and president Steve Nislick, a real estate developer with deep pockets. Candidate de Blasio, who defeated Quinn in the primary and supported the ban, was elected mayor.
On December 7, 2014, the editorial board of The New York Times wrote: “Here is something the New York City Council can do to end 2014 on a high note… give him [de Blasio] the opportunity to move on from the foolish campaign promise to shut down the industry, made last year to a small, loud and financially generous group of horse advocates… Details are lacking, but questions are many… What will happen to the stables on coveted property on the west side of Manhattan?”
In 2019, carriage horses were again on the council’s agenda. Intro. 1425-2019 made it unlawful for horses to work in high heat indices. Along with the foie gras ban, it passed the city council with support from Levine and Rivera.
While the council was busy saving animals, two million adults in NYC, according to Columbia University and the Robinhood Foundation, were struggling to afford housing, to pay for doctors visits, or to provide enough food for themselves and their families. Nearly 79,000 people were homeless, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, and one in every 100 newborn babies was discharged from the hospital to a homeless shelter.
On November 25, 2019, de Blasio signed the animal rights bills into law. And in 2021, among the candidates endorsed by NYCLASS: Carlina Rivera for City Council.
More than a dozen countries outside the United States ban the sale and/or production of foie gras. In the U.S., New York City (sale) and California (production and sale) ban foie gras. As of October 18, California’s law was still working its way through the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where arguments were heard as to whether California should be allowed to import foie gras from out of state.
Hudson Valley Foie Gras and La Belle Farms play a significant role in the economic life of Sullivan County. Given that reality, and the dated and inconclusive testimony and science presented by key witnesses in favor of banning foie gras, critical questions remain unanswered. Why didn’t Carlina Rivera, the city council, and Mayor de Blasio tour the foie gras farms? Was there no negotiating a surprise visit, avian veterinarians (selected by an independent body) in tow?
And what about a first-hand look at the ancillary businesses that will hemorrhage employees and revenue if the ban goes through? Were the council hearings just for show, resulting in easy campaign support for NYC politicians, who showcased their sensitivity for animals, while ignoring the harm their legislation will do to the people of Sullivan County?
“New York City’s foie gras ban will have a tremendous impact on our region,” said New York State Sen. Mike Martucci, (R-42 Delaware, Orange, Sullivan and Ulster counties). “The council voted on an issue that they didn’t understand. At the very least, they should have come and visited these farms.“
“Once you lose foie gras,” said state Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo (D-Broome), “it’s the end of those two businesses.”
And it’s not just the farms, it’s the jobs, the feed companies, the gas and propane suppliers, the transport companies, the stores where people shop. It’s the 200 small farmers who process their poultry at Hudson Valley Chicken in a state where small farmers find processing plants hard to come by. And it’s the free manure the duck farms provide to farmers like Tom Bose, saving him several thousands of dollars a year on fertilizer. “These are the ripple effects,” Lupardo said. “It’s very, very worrisome.”
“When a farm does well, everybody does well,” said Todd Nearing, co-owner of Sullivan County’s Cochecton Mills, who supplies food for the ducks at Hudson Valley and La Belle. “Agricultural sales are a big player in Sullivan County. It may be the number one industry.”
“We all hope they’ll let us keep feeding the ducks, but we’ll see what happens,” says Jesus Ponce, a farmworker at Hudson Valley. “We don’t have Plan B.”
Repeated requests to Rivera for comment went unanswered, but the barn doors at La Belle and Hudson Valley remain open.
Carlina Rivera’s still invited.
“But only,” Henley said, “with her eyes wide open.”
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