The foie-gras industry in post-Brexit Britain

Read Time:   |  29th March 2018

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Claire Palmer from Viva! investigates why foie-gras is still available in the UK and how Brexit may change that…

foie-gras britain

The words ‘foie-gras’ (fatty liver) stir up a range of emotions in people, from revulsion to desire. It’s an incredibly controversial ‘product’, and one 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 has. 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, 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, can we change this in post-Brexit Britain?

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 ducks preen their feathers and flaunt their beautiful plumage for potential mates. In nature, they can live up to 10 years.

The significant welfare issues surrounding the foie-gras production are well documented and mainly focus 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 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 a day or two old, either by being gassed or thrown alive into industrial macerators.

foie-gras britain

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 make 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 civilised society. Gavaging is why Viva! have labelled this product “torture in a tin”.

Illegally caged

Birds reared for foie-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 weight increases from around 4kg to 6kg, the birds are sent to slaughter.

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 at 26,600 tonnes. While France – with 72 per cent of global production – is the leading foie-gras producing country, a taste for it has increased in Asian countries such as Hong Kong, Vietnam and South Korea. Foie-gras is also popular in Hungary, Bulgaria, the United States, Canada and China. Britain also continues to be a driving force in this cruel trade.

foie-gras britain

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 laws declare production of foie-gras too inhumane to happen here, yet free trade laws mean 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 an import ban on 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. How possible is this?

Consumer campaigns

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, while 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. 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 front pages in the UK and across Europe.

foie-gras britain

Fellow chef, Heston Blumenthal, removed foie-gras from his menus after campaigning by Viva! in April 2015, and it 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 – while 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. While 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 is 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.

foie-gras britain

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 though. 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. Viva! believes this opens up the possibility of pursuing a ban on imports of foie-gras into Britain, as it does not have an industry to protect and the move could not be challenged as a protectionist measure under WTO rules.

Brexit certainly creates a possibility for action, but no certainty. It is vitally important for people to 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 foie-gras free! Sign our petition to end imports of foie-gras to Britain:

Claire is a campaigner for Viva! the charity working to promote veganism and to end animal suffering.

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