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Importation and Sale of Foie Gras

Volume 738: debated on Tuesday 24 October 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the importation and sale of foie gras.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am grateful to have secured this important debate about the dreadful and totally unnecessary cruelty to animals in creating a so-called delicacy. I wish to make it clear that, while today’s debate is about the importation and sale of foie gras, I understand that we cannot ban a product. Instead, we can deal with the process through which it is made. In this case, the product, foie gras, is produced by forced feeding.

I wish to offer my thanks to Abigail Penny from Animal Equality UK, who should be shortly joining us in the Public Gallery. I can proudly say that she hails from the sunshine coast and resides in Clacton, which is a place of animal lovers.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. There was an Adjournment debate on this matter in the Chamber some time ago. I supported the principle referred to by the hon. Gentleman. He probably shares my frustration that, although Government have made it clear that the production of force-fed foie gras raises serious welfare concerns, unfortunately no steps have been taken. What does he feel that the Minister and the Government need to do to make that happen?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I raise the matter here today precisely because I do not think enough action has taken place since that previous debate.

Order. There is a Division in the House. We will suspend for 15 minutes for the first vote. If there are subsequent votes, it will be 10 minutes. Then, as soon as the mover of the motion and the Minister are here, we can proceed, so I ask hon. Members to go quickly as possible, please.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

After the interruption, I am pleased to say that we now have a full house in the Public Gallery. I pay tribute to and thank Abigail Penny from Animal Equality UK for her hard work on this cause. I can proudly say that she comes from Clacton, the sunshine coast, and Clacton is a place of animal lovers, which is probably why I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for animal welfare. Her charity has provided a brochure, which colleagues are welcome to take back with them, highlighting the issue in further detail.

Foie gras results from the process of forcibly putting a tube down a goose’s throat into their stomach and pumping food until their liver swells. The liver is then cut out and sold to the markets. I am sure that many meat eaters are present. One of my twin daughters champions the vegan cause, and I have to admit that I am not quite there. The point I wish to make is that the normal kinds of meat that the average consumer buys are not created in this barbaric and cruel fashion. We have strict laws in this country on how our industry produces meat and other animal products, avoiding unnecessary suffering where at all possible. Sadly, that is not the case with the production of foie gras.

Labour attempted to ban the importation of foie gras during the passage of the Agriculture Act 2020. The Conservative Government voted our proposals down, but Labour is committed to introducing a ban on these imports as soon as we can. Can we count on the hon. Member’s support?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention; I am not sure whether she was here earlier when I answered another point of a similar nature. One of the reasons why I am bringing the debate today is that there has been inaction. I would like to see action on this issue, and very soon.

I could quite easily go on regarding the emotional argument against foie gras and for animal welfare standards to be improved, but it seems impossible to have a reasonable method of producing foie gras. Instead, I shall raise a more practical argument. There have been many recorded incidents of disease outbreak in France. As we have seen with the growing bedbug issue, we are not safe from disease and pests just because we have the English channel. The crowded conditions of the farms act as a breeding ground for disease, much like any other form of intensive farming. As a representative of a constituency that has vast areas of rural land, I would not want to endanger my local farmers. We must be especially alert to that risk and not accelerate another potential pandemic given the serious consequences of covid-19. Although bird flu has not yet jumped to humans, I understand that scientists are concerned that it could mutate.

Foie gras is an expensive luxury item. By defending foie gras sales or not acting on the trade during times of spiralling financial hardship across the country, I fear that we risk appearing to be totally out of touch with the British people. If I were to stand on Christmas Tree Island in Clacton and take a poll of constituents who have ever purchased foie gras, I can only imagine the response. This is especially important to keep in mind with the looming general election ahead. It is a low-hanging fruit for the Government, so we should move on it.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate; I had a similar debate on the banning of the importation of foie gras on the Floor of the House of Commons a while ago. Does he agree that if we deem foie gras too cruel to be produced in this country, we should also agree that, by definition, it is too cruel to be imported?

I absolutely agree that it is too cruel. As with the much-desired ban on trophy hunting, which is a ridiculous sport, we should ban such imports. From Abigail and Animal Equality UK, I understand that the petition to ban foie gras by force-feeding was signed by no fewer than 280,000 people. That is an enormous amount of people concerned for the lives of these birds and the way they live them, and it is impressive to see.

I can confirm that e-petition 608288 to ban the importation and sale of foie gras has been signed by 6,878 people, including six of my constituents in Clacton, and e-petition 609129 to ban fur and foie gras imports has been signed by 528 people. There is a case to be made that public opinion is now moving in a very clear direction.

However, colleagues and viewers of this debate alike might ask why it is focused on the importation and sale of foie gras produced by force feeding. It is because, as we have just heard, producing foie gras by force feeding is already outlawed in the UK. Nevertheless, despite the cruelty that goes into the production of foie gras, we still allow it to be imported. When applying the law, judges consider how consistent it is; in this case, in my view, the law is not very consistent at all.

As my hon. Friend the Minister might mention—I do not wish to take away any of her thunder—the Government have successfully ended the imports of whale meat, seal fur, elephant ivory, and cat and dog meat; I personally ran a campaign against cat and dog meat, to end its production globally. If personal choice is a valid reason for failing to ban the import of foie gras, why have other bans been introduced?

I also think it is prudent to note the Government’s support for the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) on the importation of hunting trophies, which I mentioned earlier. If you will excuse the pun, Mr Pritchard, there is clearly an appetite in the Government to go down the route of banning cruel imports.

Lastly, foie gras has been banned in royal residences since last year. I will not break any protocol by speaking here, but I think it prudent to mention that this place is a royal residence and still belongs to the Crown as a royal palace. Like all colleagues, I am a humble and obedient servant of the Crown, and I have sworn an oath of allegiance. Although it is my understanding that foie gras is not on any menus on the parliamentary estate, a strong act of symbolism would be to ban the product here, too—something that I will raise with Mr Speaker.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) for securing this debate today. As he pointed out, he is chair of the all-party parliamentary group on animal welfare, a role he takes really seriously—as did I when I chaired the same group as a Back Bencher. Some really great work has been done by that APPG.

My hon. Friend said that many of his constituents who are also great animal lovers are here today, because they take animal welfare very seriously. I was very pleased to hear that. However, I believe that we are an entire nation of animal lovers, and animal welfare has been an absolute top priority for the Government since 2010. Our standards of animal welfare are already world-leading. According to World Animal Protection’s animal protection index, the UK has the highest animal welfare score in the G7 and some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, which we should all genuinely be proud of.

The Minister says that we have the highest animal welfare standards. May I ask her, very gently: why has the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill gone, why has the Hunting Trophies (Import Prohibition) Bill gone and why did we not take the chance to ban foie gras in 2020?

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. If she will bear with me and listen to my speech, I think she will see that so much proposed in the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill has either already been brought forward in legislation or is in the process of being brought forward, so great is our commitment to animal welfare. I will list some of those things.

Since 2010, we have raised animal welfare standards for farm animals, companion animals and wild animals. We have banned the traditional battery cages for laying hens and we have raised standards for chickens reared for meat. We have implemented and upgraded welfare within our slaughter regime, including introducing CCTV cameras in slaughterhouses. We have revamped the local authority licensing regime for commercial pet services, including selling, dog breeding, boarding and animal displays, and we have banned third-party puppy and kitten sales through Lucy’s law, which we particularly worked on all those years ago in the APPG on animal welfare. We have also introduced protections for service animals through Finn’s law and we have introduced offences of horse fly-grazing and abandonment. Some colleagues in Westminster Hall now were involved in those pieces of legislation. We have also banned wild animals in travelling circuses.

Our manifesto commitments demonstrate our ambition to go further on animal welfare. In 2019, we committed to bringing in new laws on animal sentience; to introducing tougher sentences for animal cruelty; to implementing the Ivory Act 2018 and extending it to other species; to ensuring that animal welfare standards are not compromised in trade deals; to cracking down on the illegal smuggling of dogs and puppies; to bringing forward cat microchipping; to banning the keeping of primates as pets; to banning live shipments of animals; and to ensuring that farmers, in return for funding, safeguard high standards of animal welfare.

Ducks and geese are sentient animals; they have feelings. Imagine all of us stuck in a cage with someone opening our mouths and stuffing stuff down our throats—God, how awful that would be! We have to get rid of this stuff.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention and I am not going to disagree about the horrible cruelty—that is why we have banned the practice in this country. I think he makes the point exactly.

Those are the manifesto commitments but I would like to list the things that we have already delivered, to make it clear how seriously we take animal welfare: we have increased the penalties for those convicted of animal cruelty from six months to five years; we have passed the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022, which has just been referred to, and we have launched the dedicated Committee to work on it; we have made microchipping compulsory for cats as well as dogs; and we have announced the extension to the Ivory Act 2018, which came into force last year, to cover five more endangered species—hippopotamus, narwhal, killer whale, sperm whale and walrus.

On top of our manifesto commitments, we published our ambitious and comprehensive action plan for animal welfare in 2021. The plan set out the work that we are focused on pursuing, to deliver a better life for animals in this country and abroad. The commitments in the action plan last through this Parliament and beyond it. Our action plan relates to farmed animals, wild animals, pets and sporting animals, and it includes legislative and non-legislative reforms. In addition, we have provided for penalty notices to apply to animal welfare offences; introduced new police powers to tackle hare coursing—that needed tackling and we have worked hard to bring forward a better crackdown on hare coursing; we banned glue traps; and we have supported the private Members’ Bills to ban the trade in detached shark fins and to ban the advertising here of low-welfare animal experiences abroad.

This debate, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton, deals specifically with foie gras. As hon. Members will know, the production of foie gras by force-feeding is banned in the UK because it is incompatible with domestic legislation. Foie gras production is covered by the general provisions in the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which make it a criminal offence to allow an animal to suffer unnecessarily and place a duty on people responsible for animals that requires them to do all that is reasonable to ensure the welfare of their animals. That includes an animal’s need for a suitable diet and to be protected from pain, suffering, injury, and disease.

While we have domestic restrictions on the production of force-fed foie gras, it is of course possible to import foie gras from abroad—clearly, there is a market trading in that. It is absolutely vital that we develop any future policies on the basis of robust evidence in line with the Government’s commitment to improving animal welfare standards as set out in the action plan for animal welfare. We are committed to building a clear evidence base on foie gras to inform our future decisions, and we are looking at what other countries that have banned it do. As my hon. Friend will know, a certain number of countries have banned the production of foie gras just as we have—Germany, Italy and Luxembourg. As he will also know, the EU does not have an overall ban. We are also looking at how the World Trade Organisation operates if a ban is introduced.

All those things need to be considered carefully. One of our strongest levers is the work that we do on the international stage to influence the strengthening of animal welfare standards across the globe recommended by the World Organisation for Animal Health and other global organisations and applied to different countries. As my hon. Friend will know from his work on dog meat—we did some work on that jointly as Back Benchers—that is a strong way to influence and encourage other countries not to use these methods. All that will be looked at in the evidence base, and we will work with relevant Departments on disease—he mentioned disease and avian flu—as part of the evidence building.

I am standing in for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, and I will make sure that comments made in the debate are passed on to him, as he was unable to attend. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton will know that some supermarkets have banned foie gras and, as he said, King Charles does not allow it to be served. Customers already have a choice not to buy it and certainly not to eat it—I would certainly never buy it.

On that very point about banning the product and its import, many businesses in the private sector have banned the product and refuse to sell it. Fortnum & Mason—a short walk from Parliament—banned it from its shelves in 2021. By allowing restaurants and retailers to sell foie gras the United Kingdom, we are permitting animal torture and suffering. It is time to take an ethical stance, because those who still sell foie gras have a business advantage, as it is still legal and possible to do so.

I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I will certainly pass on his comments. I have made the point that we have a choice as to whether or not to buy the product if we do not support those methods of production. The evidence base is being established to inform future decisions, and I want to conclude by reiterating that animal welfare is a huge Government priority. We recognise the massive contribution that animals make to our planet. We are proud of what we have achieved on animal welfare.

I thank the Minister, as she has been generous with her time. On animal welfare, a senior Tory MP has stated that hormone-injected beef is “delicious” and that

“you’ll be absolutely fine with chlorinated chicken”.

Why should we believe the Minister when she says that our animal welfare is the best in the world?

Actually, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs dismissed those comments completely and said, “Absolutely not”. I reiterate that very strongly.

To conclude, we are really proud of what we have achieved on animal welfare. I do not think that anyone in the Chamber could disagree with the long list of things that we have achieved between us. We have made a huge step forward, but there is more to do and we keep prioritising caring for, protecting and respecting the animals with whom we share the planet.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.