By Patricio Robayo
FERNDALE—Sullivan County, New York, is home to two of the largest foie gras producers in America: La Belle Farms and Hudson Valley Foie Gras.
Together, these farms employ over 400 farm workers and are the largest buyers of farm goods and heating in the county.
In 2019, the New York City Council voted 42 to 6 to ban the sale of force-fed poultry such as foie gras, citing the process as inhumane.
Foie gras, French for “fat liver,” is created by feeding the Mulard duck, a combination of a Pekin and Muscovy duck, multiple times during a specific part of the life cycle of the duck, which causes the liver to fatten.
Following the passage of a local law in 2019 by New York City to ban the sale of the product within the city limits, an injunction was placed on the law by the New York Supreme Court. This allowed the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets to review the local law.
The New York Department of Agriculture and Markets ultimately said that the local law “unreasonably restricts” the duck farms in Sullivan County from operating, thus allowing the sale to continue.
In 2023, NYC is continuing the fight and is suing the state over the Agriculture and Markets decision.
In a Supreme Court filing, the city said its decision values animal welfare over a luxury food item that requires force-feeding of birds.
The NYC lawsuit says the process of creating foie gras leads to “bruising, lesions, and perforation of the esophagus.”
Marcus Henley, Vice President of Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Ferndale, says the process is not harmful to his ducks.
“The physiology of a duck is different from the physiology of people. So putting a tube in the esophagus of a duck is not is not harmful. Now, there’s a perception that a smaller tube and so we to use a smaller feeding tube that seems to me very not objectionable visually. But what we were doing previously was not harmful to the ducks either. We’ve changed our genetics, we’ve shortened our feeding programs, all of those things that we do are beneficial to the raising of the animals and also have an economic benefit. So have we changed our process? Yes. Have we changed it because what we were doing was not acceptable for animal agriculture? No.”
Henley says if the ban were to hold finally, his farm would lose a large portion of its sales. New York City accounts for about 25 percent of its sales.
“The farm produces $35 million a year, and about a quarter of that would come from New York City. So that’s a little less than $10 million for our company. And that’s very significant. if we’re losing 25% of our sales, it’s a dangerous situation. You can’t cut out 25% of your overhead costs. So if we sell for a certain level, our taxes are the same. Our property taxes, real estate, the maintenance of the infrastructure, it doesn’t change, so we can cut out some of our direct costs.”
What do human rights advocates say about the process?
Animal rights activists consider foie gras production inhumane, but the American Veterinary Medical Association stated in 2014 that force-feeding ducks is possible and that the extent of their discomfort is unclear. The AVMA also mentioned that capturing and restraining ducks is stressful, and feeding tubes pose injury risks.
Voters For Animal Rights support New York City’s ban on foie gras, calling it a cruel product from tortured animals, and believe the ban will be enforced despite industry efforts to overturn it.
Voters for animal rights is an organization that helps elect candidates who support animal protection.
Bryan Peas, an attorney for the Voters for Animal Rights, says the ducks do feel pain.
“Ducks do have a gag reflex; their esophagus is just as often susceptible to injury as humans. Yes, they can expand they can swallow large fish and things like that. But that’s different than having a long and flexible pipe just jam down your throat. it does cause scarring. It does cause injury, and it is painful for the ducks.”
Peas also says that the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets decision is an extreme power grab.
“They are attempting to enforce a very extreme reading of the agriculture and markets law which allows them to review local laws within agricultural districts. So the farms are within agricultural districts. And if the local jurisdiction there had passed some law that would impact the farms and ice dam, this agency would be able to review those laws, but they are claiming that they can review any law anywhere in the state that could impact a farm somewhere else and that that enables them to essentially strike down laws that local jurisdictions like the city of New York passed so hopefully the courts won’t go along with this power grab it’s an extreme thing that our governor in New York State and the Attorney General are allowing nice damn to try to get away with, and hopefully we’ll be able to stop them. But local jurisdictions need to be able to retain the ability to pass local laws to protect their local public health, safety, morals, and general welfare of the people of their cities.”
According to Allie Taylor, President of voters for animal rights, that support for the ban was overwhelming.
“81% of New York City voters supported this ban on flog raw; this was not something that was a fringe issue. This is something that the overwhelming majority of not only New York City residents, but the City Council as well supported.”
The debate over foie gras production raises broader questions about the treatment of animals in the food industry and the treatment of farm workers.
Animal rights activists argue that the use of animals for food, clothing, and other purposes is inherently exploitive, and unethical.
Henley says if it is banned goes into effect, it will significantly impact not only the farm workers but the local economy if the farms were to shut down.
“If you say you can’t sell something that’s the product of force-feeding? Well, how do you separate that from pet food? How do you separate that out of clothing? How do you so that the economic consequences of this kind of ban are much greater than what? If you lose that 25% of your business, okay, that’s great. But then if the pet food, people say, Well, you know, we can’t take a chance that some of the duck bones that we used are going to be in pet products that are sold in New York City. So then you lose another section of business; it’s just not these things are not well thought through and also have no basis because we don’t mistreat the animals.”
What do animal rights activists say if the farms have to close down due to the ban that there will be a negative impact on the local economy?
Taylor says, “They have to lay off workers it’s because they have not evolved. their businesses to be sustainable businesses that can continue to exist, and that’s on them. Every business has to make changes, it’s 2023. We see this happening all the time. We saw this happening in technology industries. We see this happening in food industries across the country; it is up to the owners of the business to make sure that they are constantly innovating and finding new ways to retrain their workers and to generate new sources of revenue that aren’t entirely dependent on abusing animals.”
Peas says, “The local law 202, The New York City foie gras sales ban is focused on the impact in the city of New York or people not wanting to be exposed to the sale of a product of extreme animal cruelty. New York City is perfectly entitled to make the determination for its local jurisdiction. As far as any indirect economic effects in Sullivan County? New York City doesn’t regulate or say anything about what the farms can do in Sullivan County; they can continue doing what they’re doing, they can find other markets, and no one’s saying they can’t run an ordinary duck farm either. It’s just that if they want to sell their products in the city of New York, they would need not force feed those ducks. And as far as the workers that they’re claiming that they would need to lay off. And that’s they seem to be referring to the workers that actually do the forced feeding, which is one of the worst jobs imaginable. They’re abusing migrant labor that they bring in and deceive. There have been class action lawsuits about this; there have been op-eds in the New York Times exposing them over the years and calling on legislators to do something about the abuse of the workers there. But, you know, during COVID, when there were restaurants, not not open, they certainly didn’t have any problem scaling up or scaling down the number of migrant workers that they abuse, exploit, and have come work on these farms as needed. And when the workers have tried to mobilize, they have simply fired that they fire them at will anyway, even, you know, just because they tried to stand up for their own rights. And there was a situation several years ago where they did. Hudson Valley Foie Gras fired all the workers because they tried to organize, and then they were just they’re stuck there in the middle of nowhere with nowhere to go, and a local church had to take them into their basement. And I can refer you to a YouTube video where a former state’s New York State Senator went there and hurt and had this told to him by some of the people there. They do not care about these workers. These farms want to make more profits by being able to sell an amoral product in the City of New York, which the City of New York deemed to be offensive to public morals, health and safety, and the general welfare of the people in New York.”
Henley said about the mistreatment of the farm workers, “These are the people that say we mistreat our animals also, right? Yeah, as I recall, there this was before my time over 20 years ago. It may have been a misunderstanding of the work rules and terms of overtime pay or minimum wage. That was, people were paid appropriately on a monthly basis but not on a weekly basis, which is required by New York State law. Again, this is before my time, and not I don’t have details.
New York State has very robust worker protections. There are not-for-profit advocacy groups that are resources for the workers; we even invite from time to time the Department of Labor to set up a table when we’re doing an immunization clinic. We try to provide all of the postings and English and Spanish that provide hotline numbers for the workers who have wage disputes and sexual discrimination issues; all the things, those things are posted by the time clock. I mean, saying that the workers are, are deceived and mistreated is disgusting. These people have, from the very beginning of this, the belief that the ends justify the means. They’ve misrepresented the farm, and the farming practice and the hearing which you attended was just a litany of, of lies and misrepresentation.”
Sergio Saravia, the President of La Belle Farms, which is the other foie gras farm located in Sullivan County.
Both farms have come together to oppose the ban.
Saravia said, “It couldn’t be farther from the truth. How we treat our workers. And the reality of it is, as I stated down in New York City, that for Lebel, we are those workers, you know, we came the same way they come; we were looking for the same opportunity. And these people have been working with us for 30-plus years. And we’re on the third generation to say that we mistreat our workers; it couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
Hector and his brothers were once migrant workers themselves, employed on a chicken farm after immigrating to America.
They eventually struck out on their own and expanded into foie gras production.
According to Hector, they often provide housing and support a path to citizenship for many of the workers they employ.
“Why would we want to hurt anybody? This is what gets me, okay there’s bad immigrants; obviously, there’s a bad in every aspect of life. But when you have hard-working farmers that only want to work, we go out of our way to help them because that’s how we came. That’s what we know how to do. And if you need help, legal work, and you help with anything, like some of them are afraid to go to do the driver’s test to get like the the language because of whatever because they don’t they’re not comfortable reading and writing, whatever the reason may be. You have my sister sitting there with them going over all the questions, taking them to DMV, helping them, and the level of literacy is not great, and that’s why they’re not in a position just to go out to get a job if the farm closes because. It is very difficult for them.”
The Duck Farm Tour
Henley showed Radio Catskill, where the ducks are raised, live, and ultimately slaughtered.
“Yes, we have, in this one area, we have the youngest and the oldest. So when the babies come in, these have been here for a week; we have new babies coming tomorrow,” said Henley inside the barn where day old ducklings arrive.
The wooden barn where the ducklings are housed is large, with the smell of corn feed lingering in the air and fans distributing the warm air throughout the barns.
In this one barn, over 12,000 ducklings are housed, and they arrive on the farm at only one day old.
They are placed in different sections of the barn, which is temperature controlled to 95 degrees on the ground.
“Each week, we keep them separated by age, all the way through the process, because it’s important because their needs are different at each age, these need more heat than the ones across the room that are two weeks older, so we’re are careful to keep them separated.”
The farm tries to mimic what a ducking would need in the early stages of its life, which on the farm consists of a high protein diet and water.
“For the first week, we provide those water drinkers on the floor, and it’s a shiny Use liquid, and they look at that. And with the seeking behavior, they’re going to stick there. They’re going to stick their beaks in, and they say, Oh, this is nice, and they learn to drink. And then, as we go through the week, those wines are called nipple drinkers. And there’s a little nipple. And this is it’s held down with a spring, a very loose spring. And so there’ll be a bead of water, and they’ll go, and they’ll peck at the meter of water, which pushes up the spring and water fills their mouth. And so instead of a common basin, which is not as sanitary as we would like, the ones that are two weeks old, they don’t have the drinkers anymore. They’re they’re strictly drinking from the nipple drinkers.”
The ducklings are in the nursery for four weeks and then are moved to another barn until they are ready to begin the force-feeding process after eight weeks.
The growing barn is another large wooden barn with ducks in various stages of growth. These ducks are not like the ones you see at your local pond; they are large, almost goose-like in appearance.
The barn appears much like the other barn, large, dusty, and with the smell of feed lingering in the air.
The Hudson Valley area is currently experiencing an avian-flu outbreak, which limits who can be in contact with the ducks to limit exposure.
“We have the feet on one side and the water on the other. So they have to walk back and forth; we have an incline ramp that helps keep them strong and healthy. And we have the caretakers that are here, taking care of making sure that liters is dry, the waters are working well. And you know, nice barn natural light, that we actually even on the coldest days, we don’t have to add heat to the barn, really, because you have, you’ll have about 5000 ducks in this building or on this floor, and they generate enough heat to heat. It’s a little bit of management of the ventilation. You don’t have much of an odor because we’ve separated the water from the wood shavings in the droppings; you don’t have that chemical reaction that creates ammonia.”
Henley points out how the ducks are not running away from the farm workers or even us because he says they are around people all day.
He says that is an important factor in the next stage of the process, where 11 ducks are put into a 24-foot enclosure to begin its force-feeding process for the next 21 days; the farm worker climbs into the cage.
The ducks are fed about every eight hours, which means, during a 24-hour day, the farm workers have to attend to feeding the ducks every eight hours for three hours at a time.
“The people who feed the ducks are assigned a group of ducks, and they’re going to carry those ducks all the way through the 21 days. So so the ducks become accustomed to an individual, and the individual knows the ducks that we have assessments that where we again, the physiology of a duck, we’re not forcing food into the stomach, we’re putting it into the crop which is a sack that has a capacity of about a liter at the base of the throat. And so we’re just dropping the food into the sack and then and then from there proceeds through the rest of the digestive system right below that is the gizzard which is a hard muscular barley can’t force anything past that. And after 21 days they come to the processing plant and we do the processing and the cutting of the birds. “
Henley says that is the reason many of the workers live right on the farm.
About 100 workers live on the farm in double-wide trailers that are spread throughout the farm.
Henley added, “In summer, we have a community garden program. And then we’ll also plant an acre with pumpkins and sweet corn. For those
opportunities to do something outside of work that makes you feel good and also provides nutritious food.”
Two soccer goals are set up between some of the houses where Henley said the workers play after working on the farm.
Henley himself lived in one of the trailers when he made his way from Arkansas to Ohio and then to New York.
“I lived in the first trailer 20 years ago, when I moved out here from a job in Ohio, and my wife was still finishing school out there. And I really enjoyed being here and our sense of community. I’m from Arkansas. Chasing opportunities, was in chicken processing in a large plant in Georgia. And then I came to I was the plant manager of a turkey processing operation near Syracuse and was there for about 11 years. And I did some consulting work for the government regulations for Hudson Valley at that time, and in 2001. They asked me to come and be the manager of operations here, and it’s been a really great opportunity.”
Henley says the farmer works have a free medical clinic offered to the farm works in collaboration with Christ Health Care Minisroores.
“A purpose-built medical trailer to exam rooms, office, and waiting room, and they have a biweekly medical free medical clinic. And we were proud
In the feeding barn, it’s wet and with rows of ducks in 24-foot enclosures.
Henley says the barn is wet because general cleanliness contributes to our biosecurity program. We’re going to have someone wash the floors on a regular basis. Also, these are ducks, and they like to be clean. So we give them a bath a couple of times during the 21 days. We’re not putting them in a basin of water that will come by and then spray them with water.
And in the feeding, Henley says, “We’re using a very small and thin tube. So it’s inserted almost into the mouth of the duck rather than down the throat. We also use a liquid feed.”
Henley said the ducks use to be fed harder grain, but the feed would leave scars in the esophagus of the duck.
“We found that using a liquid feed was even more perfect and gentle. And that also helped us in terms of improving the health of the animals. I mean, it was never a problem. But it’s less of a problem now.”
The farm uses every piece of the duck except for the head and feet. The liver, of course, is made into foie gras and prepared in many different varieties.
The meat is also packaged and sold, and the bones that are left over are used in dog food, according to Henley.
And the feathers? They are sold to make down feather products like pillows, blankets, and coats.
This is the reason for concern: industries that depend on the by-product of the process of foie gras will be affected if the ban goes into effect.
And in Sullivan County, the duck farms help the other local farms with fertilizer made from the droppings of the ducks .
Henley, with all the attention on foie gras, has actually made farm life better for the ducks.
“All of this attention, we have to live, avian influenza aside, like we’re going to have company to come and see what we do. And the animals are certainly better off for it. We keep the farm better, and we take better care of the animals.
Taylor, President of the Voters for Animal Rights, says she doesn’t have to be there in person to know that this is wrong.
“I don’t need to see an assault in person to know that assault is wrong. I don’t need to see theft happen or have it happened to me to know that it’s wrong and it’s immoral. The City Council operates the same way; they don’t need to see awful immoral practices happening in front of their eyes to know that it’s something that is unacceptable to New Yorkers.”
The slaughterhouse is right next to the feeding barn. Once the ducks are transported, they are given a dip in the water.
“They’re passed through the stunner; they come in contact with water with an electrical charge, which puts them to sleep so that they don’t experience the cut.
After they bleed for about three minutes, they are placed into a hot bath and have their feathers removed before being hung by its neck and left chilled until the next day.
The next day, the ducks are further processed.
“We’ll take the racks out and open them in take the liver out, and then collect all of the other parts and pieces.”
About 2000 ducks a day can pass through the processing plant, and that number could increase depending on the holidays.
“Valentine’s is usually pretty good, and Mother’s Day. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. It’s good to enjoy foie gras.”
The battle goes on as Henley fights to keep his business open and sell his duck liver delicacy. Meanwhile, the City of New York and animal rights activists are working to put an end to the sale of foie gras.