By Lisa Baertlein and Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As chefs in California hurried to stock their kitchens with newly legal foie gras, animal rights activists on Thursday protested a federal judge's decision overturning the state's two-year ban on sales of the fatty liver of ducks and geese.
Chefs said they were scrambling to line up shipments from outside California while activists picketed restaurants in Los Angeles and San Francisco that planned to serve the French delicacy prized for its creamy texture and rich taste.
"We're still waiting to get foie gras. It's obviously at a high premium right now," said Jason Travi, executive chef of Los Angeles restaurants Superba Food & Bread and Littlefork.
California outlawed foie gras sales and production in 2004, but the ban did not take effect until 2012. Proponents of the ban say forced feeding of ducks and geese to enlarge their livers amounts to animal cruelty.
A U.S. District Court judge in Los Angeles ruled on Wednesday that California's ban ran afoul of a federal law regulating poultry products. The ruling only applied to the sale of foie gras. Production continues to be banned.
Many chefs said they did not expect to receive shipments for a few days.
Marcus Henley, operations manager of New York producer Hudson Valley Foie Gras, said orders from California have gone from "zero to 25 percent of our normal weekly business."
Henley said the company, which ships overnight to California, sells foie gras produced from about 5,000 ducks each week.
Meanwhile, more than two dozen protesters targeted suburban Hermosa Beach restaurant Hot's Kitchen, which is under the umbrella of Hot's Restaurant Group, a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit.
"It is important to remember, just because the sale of foie gras is legal in the state of California, the production of foie gras is still illegal," said Matt Bruce, a campaigner with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Benoit Cuchet, president of Canada's Association des Eleveurs de Canards et d'Oies du Quebec and lead plaintiff, visited chefs around Southern California on Thursday.
"Our farmers are extremely excited," said Cuchet, who added that the association plans to immediately ramp up production. Prior to the ban, California represented 25 percent of sales for the association's producers.
Ludo Lefebvre, a French-American chef at Trois Mec in Los Angeles, said the ban distracts from quality issues associated with industrial-level production of chicken and beef.
"It's easier to attack smaller foie gras producers than chicken factories," he said.
(Additional reporting by Aron Ranen in Hermosa Beach, California; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Ken Wills)