ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) - An agency charged with protecting New York consumers from tainted foods isn't doing its job as far as foie gras is concerned, activists say in court.
Since foie gras is produced by force-feeding ducks until their livers grow to 10 times the normal size and become "pathologically diseased," the state Department of Agriculture and Markets should classify the delicacy as adulterated, according to the complaint from the Animal Legal Defense Fund in Albany County Supreme Court.
"Their failure to do so has directly resulted in hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of diseased and severely ill animals being slaughtered for food in the state of New York in direct contravention of state law, and a flood of adulterated food [flowing] into the state's markets," the complaint states.
The complaint includes claims against three New York foie gras producers - La Belle Farm, Bella Poultry and HVFG LLC dba Hudson Valley Foie Gras - that operate out of Ferndale, N.Y., about 90 minutes west of Poughkeepsie.
"HVFG or its subsidiaries is engaged in the factory farming, slaughter and distribution of over 250,000 ducks annually" in the production of foie gras, the activists say.
New York's agriculture department "has known about the diseased nature of force-fed foie gras for years, but has nonetheless failed to remove it from the human food supply," according to the complaint.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund cites a 2006 lawsuit against the department by the Humane Society of the United States - an exhaustive filing with 62 exhibits, including videos and affidavits from scientists and avian pathologists - as alerting the New York "to the great weight of scientific evidence demonstrating that force-fed foie gras is a diseased and adulterated product."
That lawsuit was dismissed on standing grounds.
The current complaint, which attaches the 2006 lawsuit as an exhibit, revisits some of the earlier expert opinions, including findings from duck necropsies that "noted various secondary infections and illnesses attributable to the production process." Former state wildlife pathologist Ward Stone concluded that the production process "creates a diseased condition in each duck," the complaint says.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund sued alongside Daniel Stahlie, a New Yorker who who says he sometimes consumes foods containing duck or goose livers.
Stahlie allegedly worries that the foie gras he eats at restaurants or events might come from facilities where ducks are force-fed and may be prone to disease.
"Were state respondents to condemn force-fed foie gras, as is their statutory duty, Mr. Stahlie would be assured that any foie gras that he consumed in New York would be safe and lawfully produced," the complaint states.
"By approving force-fed foie gras for human consumption and allowing it to remain in the marketplace, state respondents have injured Mr. Stahlie's interests by causing him to consume diseased, dangerous and illegally manufactured products."
Stahlie says he is particularly worried about the alleged connection to an increased risk of secondary amyloidosis, "an extremely serious medical condition, which is difficult to treat and has a high mortality rate."
Force-fed foie gras contains amyloid fibrils that can be passed on to humans, and can develop into secondary amyloidosis if a chronic inflammation occurs later, according to the complaint.
In July, California became the first - and only - U.S. state to ban the sale of foie gras, and a federal judge has reportedly upheld the law against protests from a group of U.S. and Canadian foie gras producers, including Hudson Valley Foie Gras. The Animal Legal Defense Fund, headquartered near San Francisco, says it was founded in 1979 by attorneys who wanted to use the legal system to protect animals.
Last year, the group asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop regulations that would require all foie gras sold in this country to be labeled "Notice: Foie gras products are derived from diseased birds."
In its New York complaint, the group asks for pre-hearing discovery "to determine whether the state respondents have refused to perform a duty enjoined upon them by law, or whether they acted arbitrarily and capriciously, or affected by error of law."
The group wants the state to produce all reports, documents and public comments on foie gras between July 27, 2006, and Sept. 25, 2012, as well as veterinary care, mortality and production reports during the same period at the three Sullivan County businesses.
The group also wants access to the businesses "to inspect and document the conditions and production methods existing thereon, which are probative to show that the foie gras produced in New York state constitutes adulterated food."
Jonathan Schopf of the Vincelette Law Firm in Albany represents the plaintiffs.
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