LOS ANGELES (CN) - Animal rights groups are fighting the U.S. government's 2009 decision allowing force-fed foie gras, claiming the delicacy violates a federal law regulating poultry and is a health risk to consumers.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund has condemned the "arbitrary and capricious" decision of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which rejected a call to ban force-fed foie gras.
It and other groups seek an injunction against the agency, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, the Food Safety and Inspection Service and its administrator, Alfred Almanza.
Carter Dillard, an attorney for the Animal League Defense Fund, told Courthouse News that the Poultry Products Inspection Act prohibits the sale of products from diseased animals, but said the USDA "turned a blind eye on foie gras."
"The only reason the USDA is not banning it is because it is beholden to the foie gras industry rather than to American consumers," Dillard said in an interview.
The federal complaint calls force-fed foie gras an "unwholesome, adulterated poultry product" that is "unfit for human consumption."
"Foie gras is created by a force-feeding process called gavage, which is engineered to induce acute hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease, in ducks or geese," according to the lawsuit. "Overwhelmed by fat deposits, the livers of force-fed birds begin to degenerate and their capacity to filter toxins from the circulatory system diminishes."
Activists say these toxins "accumulate in the blood," and cause "serious systemic diseases." Force-feeding also causes a condition in duck and geese called hepatic lipidosis, the lawsuit states.
Those "abnormally high levels of toxins" also put humans at risk, according to the complaint. People with inflammatory diseases - such as rheumatoid arthritis - may develop a disease known as secondary amyloidosis after consuming the delicacy, the groups warn.
"Secondary amyloidosis begins when a soluble protein degrades and splits, creating insoluble protein fragments that take root within vital organs such as the kidney, liver, or spleen," according to the lawsuit. "As these protein fragments attract other protein fragments, the initial deposit grows, leading ultimately to organ failure and death."
Those protein deposits have also been linked to the development of Alzheimer's disease, the complaint states.
In 2007, animal rights groups asked the USDA and Food Safety and Inspection Service to enforce regulations that would effectively prohibit force-fed foie gras.
According to the complaint, however, the government denied the petition with a decision that was allegedly just two pages long.
"As a result of this denial, defendants continue to permit, and in fact encourage, federal inspectors to classify the diseased livers of force-fed birds as wholesome," the lawsuit says. "Defendants effectively exempt force-fed foie gras from the scrutiny required under the PPIA, allowing foie gras producers to market diseased organs as gourmet delicacies. In doing so, defendants frustrate congressional intent and place American consumers at risk of food-borne illness and other diseases."
Foie gras is banned in more than a dozen countries, and force-feeding is outlawed in the United Kingdom and several other European countries. In California, a law banning force-feeding of birds will come into effect later this year, according to the lawsuit.
Last month, an animal rights group filed a class action to ban San Diego restaurants from advertising foie gras as humanely produced.
The other plaintiffs in the complaint are: Regal Vegan Inc., California residents Sarah Evans and Michelle Schurig, New York residents Caroline Lee and Daniel Stahlie, Farm Sanctuary, Compassion Over Killing and Animal Protection and Rescue League.
They are represented by Lawrence Riff with Steptoe and Johnson.
Riff told Courthouse News that Americans count on the USDA "for the basic safety of our food" and that the agency had regulations "to achieve those ends."
"This includes precluding the sale of adulterated organ meat," Riff said in an email. "This lawsuit is asking a federal judge to review the USDA's refusal to ban the sale of fois gras which is, in fact, an adulterated organ. Our clients are also very concerned about the inhumane conditions that these animals must endure."
A spokesperson for the USDA could not immediately be reached for comment.