Foie-Gras in Post-Brexit Britain
The words “Foie-gras” (“fatty liver”) stir up a range of emotions in people – from revulsion to desire. It is an incredibly controversial ‘product’, and one that Viva! hopes is shown the door in a post-Brexit Britain.
Foie-gras is a high-end product, and the more yellow the liver, the higher value it commends. Successful campaigning by Viva! led to the removal of all foie-gras from British supermarkets, and having it on their shelves is akin to selling a mink coat. However, online sales continue, and the product can still be found on restaurant, bistro and pub menus. Despite it being illegal to produce here, due to the extreme practice of force-feeding involved, the inherent cruelty involved, like that of fur production, appears to make it more attractive, rather than impede its value.
Each year Britain imports tonnes of foie-gras from EU countries such as France, Belgium, Hungary and Spain, marketing them as an expensive delicacy. So far we have been unable to secure an import ban due to a complicated free movement of goods principle. The question is, will we be able to change this in post-Brexit Britain?
Gavaged to Death
Ducks, which make up around 90 per cent of foie-gras production, are intelligent and naturally inquisitive birds - spending their days looking for food in the grass or in shallow water, and sleeping with paddling-mates at night. They can feel pain and emotions just like dogs and cats and display meticulous cleaning rituals. Male duck preen their feathers and flaunt their beautiful plumage for potential mates. In nature, they can also live for up to 10 years.
The significant welfare issues surrounding the production of foie-gras are well documented and is mainly focused on force feeding, through a practice called ‘gavaging’, and poor housing. Gavaging is protected by French law as part of their cultural and gastronomical ‘heritage’ (under a French rural code). Only male ducklings are used in French foie-gras production as they put on weight quicker and their livers are less veinous. Almost all females are killed at just a day or two old either by being gassed or thrown alive into industrial macerators.
Foie-gras cannot be sold as ‘French’ unless it is the result of force-feeding. This means taking a bird and ramming a tremendous amount of grain down his throat. Modern systems use a tube fed by a pneumatic or hydraulic pump. This practice of gavaging is both cruel and damaging to the birds’ health - causing violent trauma to the oesophagus, which would often lead to death.
The daily routine for birds caught up in this abhorrent trade is to endure up to four pounds of grain and fat pumped into their stomachs three times a day for around two weeks. This is more grain than a duck or goose would get in a lifetime, maybe three lifetimes, and it results in the liver expanding by six to eight times its normal size. This in turn results in scarring of the oesophagus, impaired liver function and disease (hepatic steatosis). The engorged livers distend the birds’ abdomens and makes it difficult for them to walk. They may tear out their own feathers and attack each other out of stress. Death follows if the force feeding is continued.
This cruelty has no place in any civilised society. Gavaging is the reason why Viva! have labelled this product “torture in a tin”.
Birds reared for foi-gras production are not caged their entire life, but they are caged for gavaging. Despite a Europe-wide ban on individual cages, which came into force in 2011, France continues to force over 40 million ducks into cages so small the birds can’t perform natural behaviours including stretching or flapping their wings. They are incapable of preening themselves because the cages are too narrow, and only their heads are free to facilitate force feeding. Once their body weights have increased from around 4kg to 6kg, the birds are sent to slaughter.
In Spain and Hungary cages also fail to meet the minimum standards required by Council Directive 98/58/EC concerning the protection of animals kept for farming purposes. This is unacceptable!
For several years now, the French animal rights organisation L214, have regularly informed the European Commission of the ways that the French and other foie-gras producing countries are deliberately ignoring the European animal welfare laws. However the new collective cage systems replacing the individual cages also do not comply with the provisions set out in the directive. This group housing remains a far cry from a natural environment ducks should be living in, and has been identified as aggravating aggression and exacerbating injury to the birds. Footage obtained by Viva! and L214 shows such a collective caging system causing birds to have bloody injuries from being trampled upon by other ducks.
Trade in Suffering
In spite of The EU protocol on animals being sentient beings, atrocities such as bullfighting, veal farming, live exports for slaughter, and cruel fur product imports are still allowed. Foie-gras production is no different - practices relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage are protected.
At Christmas, it is estimated that 80 per cent of France’s population eat foie-gras and sales are said to be worth approximately €2bn (£1.8bn) a year. In 2014, France produced a staggering 19,300 tonnes of foie-gras, with global production estimates standing around 26,600 tonnes.
Whilst France – with around 72 per cent of global production - is the leading foie-gras producing country, an increasing taste for the controversial delicacy has increased in Asian countries such as Hong Kong, Vietnam and South Korea. Elsewhere foie-gras is popular in Hungary, Bulgaria, the United States, Canada and China. Britain also continues to be a driving force in this cruel trade.
In 2014, 184.5 tonnes of foie-gras was imported into the UK. We consume more French foie-gras than Germany, more than twice as much as Italy, and nearly five times more than Holland. Despite this huge trade, 63 per cent of Brits concluded in a 2012 Mori poll that they would like to see foie-gras imports banned.
Our national laws rightly declare foie-gras production too inhumane to take place on our shores, yet free trade laws mean that we still import tonnes of foie-gras each year. In 2012, eight MEPs called for foie-gras to be banned across Europe, however any ban in Britain has historically been blocked, which makes a mockery of existing animal welfare legislation in the UK. Campaigning groups such as Viva!, as well as politicians, have made repeated calls for a ban on the import of the diseased livers but have failed due to the EU trade rules. Celebrities Joanna Lumley and Peter Egan joined MPs last year to call for a Brexit ban … But how possible is this?
Viva! has distributed nearly a million leaflets to raise awareness on the cruelty of foie-gras production in the past seven years and has long called for a foie-gras-free Britain. Thanks to pressure from local activist groups around the country, we appear a little way there! Several councils, including York, Bath and Bolton, have banned the use of foie-gras in council properties. This is heartening as, whilst the councils do not have the power to stop establishments selling foie-gras, it does show official support for a nationwide ban. Viva!'s campaign has persuaded supermarket chain Lidl and wholesalers Makro to stop selling foie-gras in all of their stores - another important step. Through targeted media and peaceful demonstrations, we saw House of Fraser and Harvey Nichols drop the cruel product, as well as many independent hotels, restaurants and delicatessens. In 2011, Viva! persuaded Thomson Cruises to remove foie-gras and, in 2012, campaigned against its use on BBC cookery shows and Channel 4's Come Dine with Me. In 2013, Viva! and L214’s investigation into footage of producers who were, at the time, supplying Gordon Ramsay’s foie-gras for his British restaurants made national front pages in the UK and across Europe. The footage showed exhausted and distressed birds in individual cages in which they could hardly move and appeared to be suffering from painful eye injuries and abscesses. Fellow chef, Heston Blumenthal, removed foie-gras from all his menus after campaigning by Viva! in April 2015. Viva! also scored its biggest success to date by persuading Amazon - the world’s largest online retailer - to delist foie-gras on its UK marketplace.
Ultimately, as consumers, we hold a lot of power, however given that the trade is growing between Britain and France, Viva! does not believe that – whilst important - a consumer boycott is enough and is calling for an outright ban on imports. We believe Brexit could be key to achieving this.
Hope in Brexit?
After Brexit, the whole farming support system will be under review and opportunities will arise to raise welfare conditions.
Whilst Viva! campaigns for a vegan world, rather than incremental welfare improvements, we would welcome ridding Britain of this extraordinarily cruel product. We believe leaving the EU gives us a unique opportunity to do this.
Although there has been no concrete proposal on this by the government, sectors of it have revealed themselves sympathetic to a ban. The previous minister for animal welfare at Defra, Ben Bradshaw, called for a consumer boycott and, following the Brexit vote, farming minister George Eustice hinted the product might be on its way out, because production would not be allowed here. The current Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, has said that leaving the EU will be positive for animal rights as they can offer “stronger protection than Article 13 of the EU Treaty could ever do”. The government is certainly keen to show its animal friendly side after it emerged MPs voted against transferring EU law on animal sentience into our own.
Brexit means we will be potentially free of the EU principle of free movement of goods, though if the government decides in post-Brexit Britain to ban foie-gras, the decision can still be challenged by the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
The government shouldn’t let this stop them however. Despite the fact that WTO rules are often quoted as the reason why a ban on the importation of foie-gras into the UK would not be possible, there are clauses which allow countries to ban imports on the grounds that 'public morals' or 'animal health' are at threat. An example of this was the 2014 Europe-wide ban on the import of seal fur - the WTO Appeals Panel upheld the European Union's ban on imports because it violated ‘public morals’. In an important distinction they pointed out that the move was non-protectionist because the EU does not have an industry in seal products. Viva! believes that this opens up the possibility of pursuing a ban on imports of foie-gras into Britain under similar criteria, as Britain does not have an industry to protect and the move could not be challenged as a protectionist measure under WTO rules.
The single market also presents a challenge. At time of writing it is unknown whether the UK will remain part of the single market. If we do, then existing trade rules within the EU may present an issue (although they have not been tested in a court of law). Whilst the UK Government could ban foie-gras importation tomorrow (we already have the power to do just that), the risk of being successfully sued is greater if we continue being bound by single market rules. Even outside of the single market the question remains whether politicians would want to jeopardise fresh deals by ending an existing trade?
Brexit certainly opens up a possibility for action - but no certainty. It is vitally important for people to constantly remind the government that they have a moral obligation to ban foie-gras imports, regardless of the cost. And we as consumers have a duty to speak out for the suffering ducks across France and elsewhere. Let’s make Britain proudly foie-gras free!
Sign our petition to end imports of foie-gras to Britain: www.viva.org.uk/what-we-do/our-work/foie-gras