There is some controversy and legal maneuvering regarding two recent animal-protection laws in California. Regardless of whether you enjoy foie gras or shark fin soup, the arguments over loopholes, principles of federalism and even possible racial overtones make for an interesting story.
In 2004, then-state Senator John Burton authored SB 1520, which prohibited the sale of foie gras (fattened goose liver) in the state, effective July 1, 2012 (this delay was to allow restaurants a “grace period” to adjust). Well, that was the intention at least. The wording of the law prohibits a person from force-feeding, or causing another person to force-feed, birds such as geese. The law also prohibits the sale of any force-fed bird in California.
Creative restaurateurs (who perhaps missed their calling to be attorneys) quickly found possible loopholes. One restaurant is Los Angeles decided to give away free side dishes of pre-fattened foie gras with certain entrée purchases, thus theoretically bypassing both the ban on force-feeding and the ban on the “sale” of foie gras. Another restaurant in San Francisco sold tickets to an event termed a “Duckeasy” (obviously copying the speakeasies of the 1920’s), in which patrons paid a flat fee for a ten-course meal, which included foie gras. Finally, one restaurant, located in the Presidio of San Francisco National Park, continued to sell foie gras, arguing that its location on federal property exempts it from California regulations.
California also banned the sale of shark fins this year, effective Jan 1, 2012 (although those restaurants that already had stock of shark fins can sell them though Dec 31, 2012). Perhaps learning the lesson from the foie gras law, this statute states that it “shall be unlawful for any person to possess, sell, offer for sale, trade, or distribute a shark fin,” thus seemingly eliminating any “give-away” loopholes.
The story does not end there, however. Two Asian-American groups have now filed suit in federal court, alleging that this ban unfairly targets them, and thus violates the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment. In addition, they argue that the California law is superseded by existing federal law (which only bans the de-finning of sharks while at sea, and is not an outright ban on the possession of fins, as is the case with the California law).
This may seem like a lot of ruckus for an overpriced pate and a bland, tasteless soup. The legal issues are interesting, however, and illustrates why attorneys sometimes argue vehemently over semantics.