Plate of duck foie gras Roland Tanglao

USDA wins summary judgment in foie gras dispute

Animal rights groups lost in their argument that force-feeding poultry renders their livers unhealthy and unsafe for consumption.

A California federal court has granted the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) motion for summary judgment in a case alleging the agency acted arbitrarily in denying a petition to prohibit foie gras produced from force-fed poultry, according to the Food & Beverage Litigation Update put out by the Shook Hardy & Bacon law firm.

“In the petition for rulemaking, several animal rights organizations and individuals argued force-feeding poultry caused hepatic lipidosis in the animals, rendering them unhealthy and unsafe for consumption; USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) disagreed, finding that the buildup of fat from force-feeding did not make the liver unsafe to consume, unlike buildup related to disease,” the update stated.

The court confirmed that the Animal Legal Defense Fund and other plaintiff organizations had standing to sue, but the plaintiff individuals did not. ALDF said it was “gratified” the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California held that the organization had standing to bring its suit against USDA regarding foie gras, which it  said is “a cruel and diseased duck liver product.”

However, the court did not set aside the USDA’s decision to reject the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s rulemaking petition regarding foie gras. Instead, the court held that the agency acted reasonably and its position towards foie gras should be afforded deference.

“The Animal Legal Defense Fund is disappointed in this outcome, and we are exploring our options going forward,” says Animal Legal Defense Fund executive director Stephen Wells. “We see no principled basis for the USDA to treat this diseased organ any differently than it treats other such dangerous products.”

The court considered the plaintiffs’ three challenges to FSIS’s decision: (i) “its explanation for why hepatic lipidosis does not render the liver unfit for human consumption is ‘nonsensical and irrational’”; (ii) “its conclusion that there was insufficient evidence of a connection between consumption of force-fed foie gras and the onset of secondary amyloidosis in humans ‘ran counter to the evidence before it’”; and (iii) “FSIS entirely failed to consider other bases purportedly included in the petition that support a finding that foie gras is unfit for human consumption.”

Shook Hardy & Bacon explained the court in its response to the first argument, found the distinction between disease and force-feeding as the causes of hepatic lipidosis was “eminently reasonable,” given that the condition is one symptom of a disease that can also cause inflammation, hemorrhaging and a building of fibrin in the liver tissue. Because FSIS’s reasoning “is not totally implausible,” the court deferred to the agency’s scientific conclusions.

The court also dismissed the second argument, finding that FSIS provided a reasonable scientific explanation for its determination that the evidence was insufficient to demonstrate a connection between human consumption of foie gras and the onset of secondary amyloidosis.

Finally, the court agreed with FSIS’s argument that the plaintiffs failed to properly present alternative bases for banning foie gras in their petition.

“The petitioners made passing references to other ailments that the force-feeding process could cause (most of which were simply secondary to hepatic lipidosis), and did not mention any of the myriad regulations which Plaintiffs now cite,” the court held, dismissing the plaintiffs’ final argument.

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