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Foie Gras Imports

Volume 642: debated on Wednesday 13 June 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Paul Maynard.)

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving the House an opportunity to consider banning imports of foie gras to the United Kingdom. While this has been an historic week in respect of European Union exit legislation, Members will be aware that Brexit also gives us a significant opportunity to enhance animal welfare.

Foie gras is a product derived from the livers of ducks or geese that have been force fed maize repeatedly by having a metal tube inserted down their throats two or three times a day when they are just 12 weeks old. While production of this so-called delicacy, which is similar to pâté, has been banned in Britain since 2000, the fact that imports of it to the UK are allowed means that the suffering and mistreatment of animals continues. Our country, which imports about 180 to 200 tonnes of foie gras from mainland Europe each year, sadly continues to play a part in this cruel trade.

I am grateful for the work and diligence of organisations such as Animal Equality, which it was my pleasure to host in Parliament recently. Its campaigning on this issue goes back many years, and its investigative work has uncovered the reality of life before death for animals on foie gras farms, including the suffering that its campaigners have seen for themselves at such facilities in France and Spain.

The production of foie gras is undertaken in three stages, each more brutal and inhumane than the last. The first stage starts right from when a chick is hatched, when they are fed regularly until they are aged between six and nine weeks. The second stage then sees birds feed-restricted for between three and five weeks. Following that, for the next three to 10 days the birds are fed as much as possible to prepare their bodies for further force-feeding from the time they reach the age of about 12 weeks. The bird’s oesophagus is dilated, digestive secretions that are necessary for large amounts of food are stimulated, and the process of fattening the liver begins. By the end of this second stage, the liver can weigh up to 180 grams, which is more than double that of a duck that is fed naturally.

The third stage commences when an animal reaches the age of about 12 weeks, at which point the force-feeding starts. This must be endured for a whole fortnight before the bird is slaughtered; indeed, if the process lasted more than two weeks it would likely cause the death of the bird due to liver failure. The force-feeding dramatically increases a bird’s liver size and fat content.

At the end of force-feeding, a duck’s liver is seven to 10 times the size of a normal one, with an average weight of 550 to 700 grams and a fat content of around 55%. To put that into perspective, the average weight of a non-force-fed bird’s liver is about 75 grams, with a fat content of just about 7%. At the end of this force-feeding, the bird is slaughtered and its oversized, fatty liver is extracted. Given the clear mistreatment of animals that I have outlined, the production of foie gras in the United Kingdom would obviously be illegal, so should we not apply the values of animal protection to imports as well as domestic production?

Research has found that in the production of foie gras birds are confined to small cages with so little space that they sometimes cannot turn around. In some cases, dead birds remain in cages with the living. The ducks and geese display obvious respiratory problems, with evidence of trauma and inflammation of the oesophagus, recognised by blood stains on force-feeding tubes. Often ducks bleed incessantly, and some of the weakest are left to die without any basic care.

Each bird receives up to 200 grams of maize for a so-called meal, powered by a pneumatic or hydraulic pump. In the production of foie gras, this amount can be increased to 450 grams per meal towards the end of the force-feeding stage, rising to 1,000 grams after water is added to make a mash. This is of course much, much more food than they would naturally choose to eat.

I spoke to the hon. Gentleman beforehand about foie gras imports. Does he not agree that throughout the world, countries enjoy different delicacies that we may not wish to partake of, and that we have a duty to understand how these delicacies are produced to judge whether we want to try them? The hon. Gentleman has highlighted the details of this particular delicacy in great detail.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Indeed, there are traditions and delicacies in many parts of the world, but I do not think that that excuses the inhumane way in which foie gras is produced. It is certainly not part of a mainstream tradition in this country.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for bringing this debate to the House tonight. He is excellent on animal welfare issues. The decision on foie gras has already been made in this country. We have banned its production here because it is morally unacceptable and cruel, and a YouGov poll has found that 77% of people support an import ban. I think that that figure would be much higher if the rest were to actually listen to what the hon. Gentleman has to say about the immense cruelty involved and if people realised that they were eating a diseased organ. Foie gras is a product of making the animal diseased.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I pay tribute to the work she has done on many animal welfare issues. She is right to say that this is a quite disgusting form of production. If more people appreciated the fact that they were eating a diseased organ, I am sure that the percentage of people expressing outrage at foie gras being allowed in this country would be even higher.

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 provides five points that must be taken into account when focusing on an animal’s needs: its need for a suitable environment; its need for a suitable diet; its need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns; its need to be housed with—or, as appropriate, apart from—other animals; and its need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease. As I have said, we cannot produce foie gras in this country, as to do so would contravene those points, so let us apply those values to what is imported into our country as well.

To be honest, I knew that foie gras was a horrid food, but I am finding it quite distressing to hear in graphic detail what happens to these birds. How on earth can we have such double standards in this country? If we understand that it is too morally reprehensible to manufacture it here, how can we continue to import it? Surely, this has to change.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are perhaps guilty of a double standard, in that we are sometimes willing to export cruel practices to other countries. The same goes for a lot of fur production as well. It is out of sight and out of mind, but sadly, the cruelty still goes on.

The Prime Minister was right to say that our exit from the European Union must lead to wider changes in how our country works. From the conversations I have had with my own constituents and the correspondence I have received from them during the various stages of the legislation we have debated over the last two days, it is clear that ensuring that we have enhanced animal welfare provisions after we have left the EU is a priority for many people in Crawley, as it is up and down the country. Those representations are very much in my mind this evening, and as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for animal welfare, it is those calls that I will continue to pursue. Indeed, the ability of our country soon to take such decisions ourselves is an opportunity that we really must seize.

Polling has shown that under 10% of the public claim to consume foie gras and that there is overwhelming support for an import ban, with 77% of those who expressed an opinion supportive of a ban, as the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) has just mentioned. I am pleased that the appetite for foie gras is decreasing in this country. Information from the Library shows that the value of UK imports of fatty livers of geese and ducks has fallen by almost half in recent years, from £1.1 million in 2013 to around £600,000 last year. The net mass of the livers that were imported also fell in that time, from some 150,000 kg to just over 100,000 kg. Foie gras is therefore not important to British culture or cuisine.

The Government’s position has been clear: that we are unable to ban the import of foie gras to the UK while we are a member of the European Union and customs union, due to the free movement of goods obligations. However, by leaving the single market, we will be able to decide for ourselves whether our country should take a different approach. The Farming Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), stated earlier in the year that

“were the UK to commit to continue following the rules of the single market, as proposed by some, it would not be possible to consider a ban on foie gras imports.”

Indeed, the Government’s view is that an attempt to impose a unilateral ban on the import or sale of foie gras while we are still an EU member could be legally challenged as contravening provisions of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union. This country could then be referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union and face multiple damage claims from importers, exporters and other foie gras traders.

The hon. Gentleman refers to the fact that many people are voting with their feet by choosing not to eat foie gras. Does he agree that better education of the wider public would lead to fewer people eating foie gras once they learned of the disgusting practice of how the livers are obtained?

The hon. Gentleman is right. Awareness is important on such issues, and it is one of the reasons behind this evening’s debate and behind the efforts to ensure that people are perhaps not disgusted, but definitely better informed about foie gras production.

Is it not an irony that “faux gras” is available? Many chefs say that it tastes exactly the same as foie gras, yet the animals are brought up humanely and killed humanely. There really is no excuse for the import of foie gras.

My hon. Friend is right. Many alternatives to products that are produced cruelly, such as fur, are coming on stream all the time.

I welcome the Government undertaking significant reforms in the field of animal welfare. Taking pride in our natural surroundings, enhancing the environment and ensuring suitable conditions for animals are things in which we all have an interest. I welcome the action being taken by the Minister and his departmental colleagues, particularly the Secretary of State, as well as the leadership shown on the global stage by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. An example of that is the ban on ivory sales, which was announced to help protect elephants, of which approximately 20,000 are slaughtered each year. Indeed, I have the honour of sitting on the Ivory Bill Committee this week and next.

The Government recently undertook a public consultation on banning live animal exports after we have left the European Union. While the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is currently considering the responses, I hope that the Minister will ensure that both his and the Secretary of State’s determination to ensure that animal protections are enhanced on Brexit will be reflected in policy developments. The draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill sets out that the Government

“must have regard to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings in formulating and implementing government policy.”

That reiterates that animals are sentient beings that feel pain and suffering, and I welcome the fact that that principle will be written into UK law. Perhaps the Minister will update the House about when that legislation may come before us.

On CCTV in slaughterhouses, colleagues on both sides of the House will welcome the Government’s work to make such equipment mandatory in England following the uncovering of how some animals have been mistreated in abattoirs before slaughter. In February 2015, I led an Adjournment debate in the Chamber calling on the Government to take action, and I now urge Ministers to replicate the zeal with which they acted on that to ensure measures are taken in a timely manner to end foie gras imports to this nation, which I believe is still a nation of animal lovers.

I am grateful to the many organisations and institutions that have banned the sale of foie gras. The UK Parliament, the BAFTAs, the BRIT awards, the Wimbledon tennis championships—I am sure that will please Mr Speaker— and Lord’s cricket ground have all stopped selling foie gras, as have caterers such as Compass Group and Brakes and retailers including Selfridges and Harvey Nichols here in London. Hotels, restaurants and many chefs across the country continue to take a stand. Indeed, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales has banned foie gras from the menus at royal events.

We know the treatment of animals with methods such as those used to produce foie gras is wrong. The methods were outlawed, as we have been discussing, almost two decades ago in this country, but by permitting imports of this product we are still helping the trade in this cruel practice to continue, even though we may not wish it to.

When securing our animal welfare protections for after we leave the EU, I hope that the Minister will take into account the points that have been raised by many hon. Members this evening. In the months and years ahead, as Brexit takes effect, we will have the ability to introduce a ban on imports of foie gras, which will sit alongside the decision this country took to ban its production domestically. I welcome the Government’s continued work to protect and enhance animal welfare standards, and I urge the introduction of a ban.

Foie gras is cruel to produce, unhealthy to eat and expensive to purchase. The ultimate cost, though, is paid by the ducks and geese that suffer so greatly before their slaughter. It is time we banned this outdated practice.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) on a characteristically passionate speech on an important animal welfare issue. He does a great deal on many animal welfare causes, and he has done so again this evening.

The UK is a world leader on animal welfare standards, and we take great pride in the way we tackle the serious issue of animal cruelty. Our animal welfare policies are driven by our recognition that animals are indeed sentient beings, and we are acting to reduce harm to animals, whether they are farm animals, pets or wild animals.

My hon. Friend asks when we will introduce the Bills we promised on extending sentencing for animal cruelty and on animal sentience. We have published our proposals, and we currently envisage that the Bill to introduce higher sentences will come forward in this Session, and soon thereafter we will introduce the animal sentience Bill to ensure those provisions are in place in time for leaving the EU.

We are also undertaking a programme of reforms to safeguard and enhance the welfare of animals. For example, we have made CCTV mandatory in all slaughterhouses, a requirement that goes above and beyond any EU law. The Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018 modernise controls on dog breeding, pet sales and other local authority-licensed activities involving animals, and they will come into force in October.

We are also introducing legislation to allow us to increase the maximum sentences for those who abuse animals, and we are at the forefront of international efforts to protect the interests of animals. For example, we recently introduced legislation to ban UK sales of ivory to help bring an end to elephant poaching.

On farm animal welfare, we have strengthened statutory guidance codes in the form of a new enhanced meat chicken welfare code, which came into force earlier this year. We are updating the laying hen welfare code, which was tabled in Parliament on 5 June, and a new pig code is to follow, so a great deal has been done.

Let me turn to foie gras, the subject of tonight’s debate. My hon. Friend gave graphic accounts of some of the welfare problems involved, which is why, as he pointed out, the production is not permitted and would be a breach of UK law. At the moment, about 98% of duck foie gras imports to the UK come from France. UK imports of duck foie gras in 2017 were a little over 100 tonnes; as he pointed out, this has fallen considerably in recent years as attitudes change. France produces about 83% of the world’s duck foie gras and 25% of its goose foie gras. It is also produced in some other member states, such as Hungary, Bulgaria, Spain and Belgium. French law states that foie gras belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France.

The Government have made it clear that the production of foie gras using force feeding—gavage—raises serious welfare concerns. Foie gras literally translates as “fatty liver” and, as my hon. Friend pointed out, it is produced by force feeding ducks or geese large amounts of feed via a tube inserted into the oesophagus twice to three times a day for a period of two to three weeks before they are slaughtered. In its 1998 report, the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare concluded that force feeding is detrimental to the welfare of the birds and introduced EU directive 98/58/EC. It is therefore reasonable to ask why production is still allowed to continue in the EU, given that directive. The directive, which concerns the protection of animals kept for farming purposes, reflects recommendations made under the European convention for the protection of animals kept for farming purposes, which allows for foie gras production to continue where it is “current practice” as long as the producing countries encourage research on its welfare aspects and on alternative methods that do not include force feeding. Practices relating to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage are also respected under article 13 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, there is no foie gras production in the UK; it is banned, as it is incompatible with domestic legislation. Although there is no specific legislation banning the production of foie gras by force feeding, the prevention of unnecessary suffering to animals has been recognised since the Protection of Animals Act 1911. Currently, foie gras production by force feeding would be banned by the general provisions in the Animal Welfare Act 2006. That Act makes it a criminal offence to allow an animal to suffer unnecessarily and places on people who are responsible for animals a duty that requires them to do all that is reasonable to ensure the welfare of their animals. This covers an animal’s need for a suitable diet and to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease. In addition, the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 specifically states that animals

“must be provided with food and liquid in a manner that does not cause them unnecessary suffering or injury.”

If any production were to occur in the UK, the Animal and Plant Health Agency would be asked to investigate and advise on any contravention of UK animal welfare laws.

I understand the strength of feeling on this issue and appreciate the work my hon. Friend and many others have done to raise awareness. Successful lobbying and consumer pressure has meant that many UK restaurants, several councils, shops such as Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, and indeed both Houses of Parliament, have long stopped selling foie gras produced by force feeding.

I should briefly mention that there are a small number of producers of what is known as ethical foie gras, which my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) alluded to. This is where the birds are not force fed but allowed naturally to eat as much food as they wish. I understand that there are some such producers, particularly in Spain and Canada, and they simply provide an abundance of food but do not engage in force feeding. Production is at a very low level—I think only one or two Spanish farmers engage in this—but it is something that countries currently producing foie gras may want to consider further.

It would be remiss of me not to link this issue back to Brexit and the European Union as we have not had enough time discussing them today! We have a few more minutes to do so in the time that remains. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley pointed out, while we are a member of the European Union, we are required to observe law that places restrictions on the introduction of measures that impair the movement of goods within the EU market, and article 34 of the Lisbon treaty prohibits quantitative restrictions. There are some circumstances in which restrictions can be applied, but under article 114 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, in reality any such measures affecting another member state would need to be agreed by the Commission, and the Commission would not agree them without the consent of the other member states. When we leave the European Union, we do indeed have an opportunity to look at restrictions on sales along the lines that my hon. Friend pointed out. We know that there are no barriers under WTO law, which people sometimes refer to, but there are clear precedents for putting in place ethical bans under WTO law, and, indeed, some countries, notably India, have already brought forward bans on the sale of foie gras.

There are other things we are able to do as we leave the EU. We will regain our own independent seat on the OIE, the international body that deals with animal health and welfare issues, and it is our intention to have a stronger voice for the UK to agitate for animal welfare and changes in attitudes to it around the world. We will be able to make that case to promote the production of ethical foie gras for those who want to consume it, and do all we can to get other countries to adopt the type of legislation and types of ban we have in the UK.

In conclusion, we have had a very interesting debate. The number of thoughtful interventions after a long day shows the passion that people have for animal welfare. It is an issue in which there is growing interest in Parliament and across the country. My hon. Friend has done a great job this evening of highlighting another important issue.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.