York starts campaign to ban city's restaurants from selling foie gras

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York joined Chicago and California yesterday in the vanguard of the campaign against foie gras. The city aims to become the first in Britain to outlaw completely the sale of the delicacy in shops and restaurants.

Councillors took the initial step by voting overwhelmingly to ban foie gras sales on the authority's own premises. The council will also write to all registered food outlets under its jurisdiction to explain why it believes it is unethical to stock the rich "fatty liver".

In addition, councillors agreed to demand government legislation to outlaw the sale of foie gras, the production of which is already banned in Britain.

Foie gras is made by force-feeding corn mash to ducks or geese through a tube inserted into their gullets. The process, carried out 12 to 18 days before slaughter, results in the birds' livers swelling to ten times their normal size. The technique dates as far back as 2500BC, when the Egyptians began keeping birds for food and deliberately fattened them through force-feeding. Today, France is by far the largest producer and consumer of foie gras, which can cost £20 for 100g and has become one of the most contentious animal rights issues of the age.

York council's dream of an entirely foie gras-free city was dealt a slight blow when officials pointed out that it did not have powers to implement such a ban. The man who tabled the motion, the Labour councillor Paul Blanchard, refuses to be cowed but admits that not everyone supports his campaign.

"I have received 3,000 emails about this, 200 of which are personally critical of me saying, 'What's it got to do with a councillor?' and 'Why don't you go back to fixing potholes in the road?'," he said. "But if dogs and cats were treated like birds, the owners would face prison. Animal cruelty should not be a matter of dietary choice."

Before the council meeting, dozens of activists gathered outside the Guildhall in St Helen's Square, where they "force-fed" the model Adele Tyrala, who was once described as the "cutest vegetarian alive". Mr Blanchard's campaign has also received backing from the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, as well as local groups which have staged pickets outside hotels and restaurants that continue to serve the delicacy.

Not everyone agrees with the protests. Michael Hjort, the owner of the city's popular Melton restaurants and the chairman of York Hospitality Association, said Mr Blanchard's motion smacked of "gesture politics". He added: "Local authorities don't have any jurisdiction in this area – they may as well have voted to ban commercial whaling. It is a pity Mr Blanchard did not try to raise animal welfare issues that affect real people, such as battery farming for eggs and cheap chicken meat."

Nevetheless, the global campaign to end foie gras production and sales is gathering pace. In 2004, the California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, backed by Michael Sheen and Pamela Anderson, passed a law which will ban the force-feeding of ducks in the state by 2012. Last year, Chicago's city council banned the sale of bird livers in all restaurants, prompting a backlash from the hospitality industry.

In Britain, many leading stores have already stopped stocking the delicacy, including Harvey Nichols and House of Fraser. Some 138 MPs have signed an early-day motion calling for an outright ban, while 9,000 people have signed a petition on the Downing Street website.

However, actually securing a change in the law could prove problematic. While individual countries are free to outlaw foie gras production in their own territories, banning its sale would contravene EU laws on free trade. It was for that reason that Ben Bradshaw, when he was Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, called for a consumer-led boycott.

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