Foie gras company's fate in hands of court
Whole Foods accused of pressuring duck supplier to end key
May 6, 2006
By MARY CALLAHAN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
In what's shaping up as a fight for existence, embattled Sonoma Foie
Gras is taking on Whole Foods Market in court, claiming the natural
foods grocer pressured the processor of SFG's duck-liver delicacy
into severing their 8-year partnership.
Without Stockton-based Grimaud Farms to supply and process the ducks
whose fatty livers delight foodies in the Western states, Sonoma Foie
Gras cannot continue to do business, its lawsuit says.
Grimaud also distributes about 40 percent of SFG's products -- at
least until May 30, when the contract termination takes effect.
"You know, I've been going through so much for three years," a weary-
sounding Guillermo Gonzalez, whose family owns Sonoma Foie Gras,
said. "I am going to let the courts decide what is going to be our
The suit, filed Jan. 6 in San Joaquin County Superior Court, claims
Whole Foods intentionally interfered with the Sonoma Foie
Gras/Grimaud Farms contract and owes SFG unstated compensatory and
A judge Friday denied Whole Foods' bid to have punitive damages
removed from the suit and also has said she intends to deny its
motion to dismiss the entire complaint, though a final ruling has not
It's only the latest in a series of legal and political battles
involving the foie gras industry, whose practice of force-feeding
ducks to enlarge their livers has drawn the ire of animal-rights
Chicago became the first U.S. city to ban the sales of foie gras last
week, and a Philadelphia councilman drafted a similar proposal this
A California bill effective in 2012 bans the force-feeding of ducks
and other birds, giving Sonoma Foie Gras a grace period to find
another method of fattening their livers or to prove that force-
feeding is safe and humane.
But that may not be enough to save the company, which has been unable
to find another supplier or processor. The small U.S. foie gras
industry could disappear entirely, said Michael Ginor, a partner in
Ferndale, N.Y.-based Hudson Valley Foie Gras, the only other domestic
producer besides Sonoma Foie Gras.
"My feeling is that I'm concerned that in the next 10 years there
will probably not be any foie gras in this country," Ginor said.
"I think based on how things look, I would think it's going to be a
product that we lose," Ginor said. "I don't think we can ever win
this battle on the PR front because we just don't have the resources
to do that -- any of us."
Sonoma Foie Gras gets the moulard ducks it raises from Grimaud Farms,
then returns them once they're ready to be slaughtered and have their
livers removed for processing.
The partnership accounts for about 20 percent of Grimaud Farm's
revenue, said Jim Galle, Grimaud's vice president for sales. But
Grimaud Farms also provides Muscovy ducks to Whole Foods for retail
sale in a relationship that dates back to 1996, accounting for 15
percent of the Grimaud's revenue, he said.
Both Galle and Whole Foods spokeswoman Kate Lowery said that
Grimaud's association with the processing and distribution of foie
gras is incompatible with new Animal Compassionate Standards being
developed by the grocery chain.
"It's important that we partner with like-minded businesses aligned
with our values of treating farm animals humanely," Lowry said,
noting that Whole Foods decided in 1997 not to carry any foie gras in
But both denied there was any ultimatum such as that claimed in the
lawsuit, which says Grimaud Farms' president told Gonzalez and his
two adult daughters last fall that Whole Foods had demanded he sever
their association or lose Whole Foods' business.
"Our decision to end our contract with Sonoma Foie Gras was a
business decision for our farms," Galle said. "To say it was Whole
Foods who told us to would be inaccurate."
Galle said in a subsequent e-mail that contracting with other
producers hindered his company's ability to expand its core business:
raising and selling Muscovy duck, guinea hen and other fowl.
"In addition," he added, "with the coming ban of foie gras production
in California, we felt this was inevitable."
Sonoma Foie Gras launched its operations in the Sonoma Valley in 1986
and moved to a larger site outside Stockton in 1998.
Its troubles began in the summer of 2003, as it prepared to open a
restaurant and retail outlet on the Sonoma Plaza and found both its
eatery and its partners targeted by vandals.
Ensuing publicity about the force-feeding of ducks -- which, in their
final weeks of life, are fed cornmeal mush through tubes inserted
into their throats -- prompted an outcry, including an unsuccessful
campaign to ban foie gras sales in Sonoma and the later-approved
You can reach Staff Writer
Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mcallahan@...