Tuesday, 22 February 2022 05:02

From backing bans to foie gras fans: The story behind the European Parliament’s U-turn

The European Parliament has declared foie gras production respectful of animal welfare criteria in a new report, despite previously demanding a ban on force-feeding, which was called “cruel and unnecessary”. EURACTIV explores what is behind this change of heart.

Foie gras, or ‘fatty liver’, is a speciality food product made from the liver of a duck or goose that has been force-fed via a process known as ‘gavage’, which subsequently causes the liver to become abnormally enlarged.

The force-feeding of these animals is highly controversial, with campaigners and animal welfare experts arguing that the practice is cruel. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has condemned force-feeding, stating that it raises “serious animal welfare issues.”

Despite this, Parliament passed its own-initiative report on animal welfare last Tuesday (15 February) by a large majority which includes a provision stipulating that the production of foie gras is “based on farming procedures that respect animal welfare criteria.”

The justification for this is that it predominantly takes place on family farms, where birds “spend 90% of their lives in the open air and where the fattening phase, which lasts between 10 and 12 days on average with two meals per day, respects the animal’s biological parameters,” according to the report.

The move represents a change of heart for MEPs, who previously called for a complete ban on force-feeding only one year prior in their ‘End the Cage Age’ report, published in June 2021.

“[The Parliament] calls on the Commission to put forward proposals to ban the cruel and unnecessary force-feeding of ducks and geese for the production of foie gras,” the 2021 report read.

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Legal position

Foie gras production finds itself in an unusual position in EU rules, given that it is technically prohibited in the EU under Article 3 of the European Convention for the protection of animals kept for farming purposes.

The production of foie gras is also banned in several European countries, including the Czech Republic, Italy, and Germany.

However, five EU member states – Bulgaria, France, Spain, Hungary, Belgium – have a special derogation from this EU legislation given their traditional ties with the luxury foodstuff, as they consider its production as a regional heritage.

This exception is established in the founding treaties, as Article 13 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which reads that the EU’s agricultural policies “shall pay, since animals are sentient beings, full regard to the welfare requirements of animals while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions […] relating in particular to […] regional heritage.”

How did we get here?

A mention of foie gras was notably absent from the original draft of the animal welfare report, authored by the French liberal MEP and livestock farmer Jérémy Decerle and first presented to the European Parliament’s agriculture committee (AGRI) back in June 2021.

However, a joint amendment from the rapporteur and another French liberal MEP, Irène Tolleret, added in the reference to the controversial foodstuff.

According to Decerle, it was always his intention to add this amendment from the beginning but was unable to do so in the first draft given initial space restrictions.

“But I always had the idea to add the amendment on foie gras from the beginning,” he confirmed to EURACTIV.

This is because it is better to address the issue in the report in a “pragmatic way,” he said, stressing the sector adheres to the EU’s strict animal welfare rules and that MEPs “should not be scared” to talk about the subject for fear of negative repercussions.

According to the database Integrity Watch EU, the two MEPs met with a number of lobbyists in the month of April, just ahead of the drafting of the report.

Decerle met with the Comité Interprofessionnel des Palmipèdes à Foie Gras (CIFOG) and the French meat poultry industry (ANVOL) on 19 April 2021, as well as with the French general directorate of food (DGAL) on 10 May.

Meanwhile, Tolleret met with five separate French chambers of agriculture, including Southern regions renowned for foie gras such as Ariège, Lozère and the Gers (which qualifies for the protected geographical indication (PGI) for ‘foie gras du sud-ouest’), throughout the month of April 2021, as well as the French agricultural lobby FNSEA. There is, however, no record of her meeting civil society groups at that time.

Asked about the discussions during these meetings, Decerle said that he met with a range of actors, including NGOs, during the same period to discuss animal welfare issues, and the discussions were “no different to any others.”

Indeed, according to the database, the MEP did meet with campaign groups Eurogroup for Animals and Four Paws to discuss animal welfare around the same period.

A representative for Tolleret told EURACTIV that they had no further comment and that they “do not remember what was discussed or have a record of these meetings” given they were so long ago.

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From backing bans to foie gras fans

In efforts to reconcile the differing positions of Parliament on the two reports, Green Portuguese MEP Francisco Guerreiro unsuccessfully fought to have the wording changed in the report to include a reiteration for its call on the force-feeding ban.

Meanwhile, a number of MEPs who voted for the End the Cage Age report had an apparent change of heart, choosing not to back an alteration to the wording of the report, including the likes of EPP’s Marlene Mortler and leftist MEP Mick Wallace.

Asked for his position on the matter, the chair of the agricultural committee and rapporteur of the End the Cage Age report Norbert Lins explained to EURACTIV that he abstained from voting on the specific amendments on foie gras on both reports due to respect for cultural traditions.

“Agricultural products and their artisanal production are at the core of our European culture and are part of our traditions,” he said.

However, he conceded that these traditions “need to move towards higher sustainability and animal welfare criteria. “I want to support farmers and producers in this transformation in order to maintain our cultural heritage rather than pillory them,” he explained.

While he may not have taken a position on foie gras during the plenary vote last week, the voting record (p. 60, Amendment 320) shows he did vote in favour of the initial addition of Decerle and Tolleret’s amendment voted at the AGRI committee in October.

Why the change of heart?

For Decerle, the change in position is simply a testament to MEPs accepting a more pragmatic position on the matter.

“Parliament understands the issue better – they have not taken a positive or a negative stance, but a realistic one that reflects the reality of the production,” he said.

However, for Guerreiro, the fact that the foie gras statement was included in the text is just “one more example of the unscientific, erroneous and absurd nature of this report.”

“How is it possible to state that force-feeding animals by forcing tubes down their throats to pump in undesired amounts of feed are ‘procedures that respect animal welfare’ and ‘their biological parameters’?” he asked.

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The move was met with a predictable backlash by animal welfare campaigners.

Referencing the Parliament’s change of heart, Olga Kikou, head of campaign group Compassion in World Farming, queried how elected representatives can be trusted by citizens if they “cannot even do their homework.”

“They undoubtedly lose credibility, if, after only eight months from the June Resolution, in which they called for a ban of foie gras production, they vote for a report that endorses this cruel practice,” she warned.

She added that the voted text goes as far as defining foie gras production ‘in respect of the animals’ biological parameters’, completely disregards scientific facts and the rules of those EU countries that have already banned this practice at the national level.

Farming reaction

For their part, Euro Foie Gras and EU farmers’ association COPA-COGECA welcomed the assertion that foie gras production respects animal welfare criteria.

Christophe Barrailh, president of Euro Foie Gras, told EURACTIV that the sector merited a mention in the report given its commitment to food quality, animal health and welfare,” as well as its contribution to the life of rural areas.

“The sector meets all EU animal welfare requirements, and even goes beyond them with its own European Charter, and various national initiatives to optimise the breeding conditions of ducks and geese,” he stressed.

According to Barrailh, the sector suffers from a “lack of knowledge and understanding” which has led to “misconceptions and prejudices fed by wrong stereotypes” by animal-welfare activists.

“Migratory birds naturally stock fat in their liver before their journey,” he explained, adding that the fattening of geese and ducks for foie gras production is a “mere reproduction of this natural, non-pathological, and totally reversible physiological aptitude”.