A potentially explosive scrap is developing between the French and the Commission (now there’s a surprise), with the agriculture ministry refusing to implement an EU directive that would effectively ban the production of foie gras.
The bone of contention is Council Directive 98/58/EC of 20 July 1998 "concerning the protection of animals kept for farming purposes", which entered into force 8 August 1998 with a final date for implementation of 31 December 1999.
The crucial phasing can be found in Article 14 which required animals to be fed "a wholesome diet which is appropriate to their age and species" and which is fed to them "in sufficient quantity to maintain them in good health and satisfy their nutritional needs". The Article also adds that: "No animal shall be provided with food or liquid in a manner… which may cause unnecessary suffering or injury".
Other provisions of the Directive also outlaw the use of cramped individual cages, known as epinettes, in which geese and ducks are confined at the end of the fattening process. In combination, these provisions effectively ban the force-feeding of geese, on which the production of foie gras depends.
Yet, despite implementation already being five years overdue, the agriculture ministry on Friday yesterday gave the country's 6,000 producers an extra five years - until 2010 - to scrap the epinettes, while apparently ignoring completely the provisions on feeding - arguing that the Directive was "just a recommendation".
According to the Guardian which ran the story yesterday, foie gras is big business in France, which accounts for 70 percent of the 20,000-odd tonnes produced in the world each year and for 85 percent of global consumption.
The paper also notes that the industry, centred in the south-west, employs 30,000 people directly and indirectly, but fails to remark that this is a highly volatile area of France, with a high population of Basques who are not always sympathetic to edicts from Paris, much less Brussels.
The area is also the centre of a large hunting industry, reliant on shooting migratory birds on their way over to Africa, which has already fallen foul of the EU's Birds Directive (79/409/EEC).
The government’s attempts to implement that Directive, under pressure from Brussels and after several ECJ hearings, has already inflamed local passions. An attempt by Paris to ban foie gras production could, quite literally, precipitate local insurrection.
Quite how this will be resolved is anyone’s guess but, not for the first time, Paris is finding that membership of the EU is not quite the bed of roses it always imagined.