A Napa County Superior judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit against a celebrated Napa chef who has continued to serve foie gras to protest the state ban on the distribution and sale of the controversial delicacy.
In March, the Cotati-based Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit against Napa’s La Toque restaurant and Ken Frank, executive chef and partner. The complaint alleged the business’ ownership, LT Napa Partners LLC, and Frank were circumventing the 2012 law and selling foie gras in spite of the new rule.
Animal activists have claimed for years that force-fed foie gras amounts to animal cruelty, an assertion Frank strongly disagrees with, saying there are humane ways to produce foie gras.
Frank’s lawyers denied the allegations and tried to have the complaint dismissed, arguing that his client was giving free foie gras to customers under his constitutional right of petition and free speech. The customers receive foie gras along with a card protesting the new law, according to court briefings.
On July 1, Napa County Superior Court Judge Diane Price denied the motion, ruling the defendants are selling foie gras. “Plaintiff has shown future harm and continuing violations by defendants,” she wrote.
“Plaintiff contends that foie gras sales at La Toque are ongoing and that plaintiff will continue to divert resources until the sales end. Even if the court were to consider defendants’ new evidence that La Toque has started providing protest cards to customers getting foie gras, the new evidence does not change the nature of those transactions — they are sales.”
The Animal Legal Defense Fund praised Price’s decision. “Today’s decision shows that La Toque’s violation of health and consumer protection laws, and their attempt to block investigations of their own illegal activities by couching their enormous profits as free speech, is ridiculous and without legal merit,” said Stephen Wells, ALDF’s executive director.
“Such arrogance directly causes the suffering of hundreds of thousands of birds and unfairly contorts California’s marketplace with illegal and cruel products.”
Manuel Klausner, an attorney for Frank and LT Napa Partners LLC based in Los Angeles, on Tuesday said his clients may file a notice of appeal with the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco. “I’m disappointed,” he said of Price’s ruling.
On Tuesday, Frank said he’s not selling foie gras to his customers. “I’m being targeted because of my longtime vocal opposition to this law,” said Frank, who now obtains foie gras from New York’s Hudson Valley Foie Gras shipped via FedEx.
He gives foie gras to very few people, he said. “However, what I do give away to customers is my way of dumping tea in the harbor, so to speak” he said in a court filing.
“Restaurants give away stuff all the time. No one is going to argue that free ice cream on one’s birthday is not really free.”
He would not say how much he’s spent so far. “Giving away foie gras is not giving away a cookie,” he said.
He’s not giving up the fight. He now plans to offer free classes in his kitchen on how to prepare foie gras, he said. “I’m far from beaten,” he said.
No trial date has been set.