Why are plans to ban foie gras so controversial in Switzerland?
While the Swiss system of referendums is often praised for giving regular citizens a direct say in the decisions the country makes, it can sometimes reveal sharp differences between cities, cantons and regions. This phenomenon has come to the fore with a new initiative to ban foie gras, which, if brought to a poll, is set to be one of the most divisive votes of recent years. Here’s why:
Switzerland likely to vote on fois gras ban
According to a report from 24 Heures, Alliance Animale Suisse, an animal rights organisation, has collected 100.000 signatures in support of a referendum which calls for the banning of foie gras in Switzerland. They hope to officially submit the initiative in October, after parliament failed to approve an import ban on the dish last week.
For reference, the production of fois gras, which is the liver of a duck or goose that has been force-fed and fattened, has already been banned in Switzerland, Germany and a number of other countries, but the dish is still able to be imported and eaten. Alliance Animale Suisse hopes that the alpine nation will soon join other places, like New York, in issuing a total ban on the import, production and eating of the dish.
Supporters of the ban argued that the force-feeding of animals before slaughter amounts to cruel and inhumane treatment and should be treated as such. Opponents made the point that the dish remains part of regional traditions, economies and heritage, citing the fact that foie gras is protected in French law as it "belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France."
Swiss political parties hesitant to support ban
Usually, the announcement that a referendum is on the horizon would see Swiss political parties rush to oppose or support the idea. However, when asked by 20 Minuten, Green Party vice-president Isabelle Pasquier-Eichenberger was quick to say that they had nothing to do with the idea. “You can assume that our party will support this initiative”, she noted, but said that other priorities should come first.
“I hope that my party takes a stand but does not get overly involved in a campaign,” announced Social Democratic National Councillor Ursula Schneider Schüttel. Even the ever-vocal Swiss People’s Party is not dipping its toe in the water just yet, with National Councillor Jacques Nicolet stating that they would likely not support the idea, but would prepare a counter-proposal in due course.
Why is the fois gras ban idea so controversial?
The reason for this hesitancy lies in the fact that a vote on banning foie gras would be one of the most regionally divisive votes of recent years. Indeed, according to 20 Minuten, 71 percent of people in French-speaking Switzerland eat fois gras on a semi-regular basis, with 200.000 kilograms of the dish imported each year. By contrast, in German-speaking Switzerland, only 15 percent of people eat fois gras.
There are fears that the vote could spark a return to the politics of the Röstigraben - a political period in the late 20th century that saw huge differences in referendum results on either side of the “language border.” Schneider Schüttel noted that any vote on fois gras would divide the different linguistic regions and could lead to a highly unpopular decision among French-speaking populations being approved and implemented by the German-speaking majority.
FDP. The Liberals National Councillor Alexandre Berthoud said that the referendum “contradicts the idea of federalism. The diversity of our country also consists of culinary diversity. A majority does not have the right to dictate to the other what goes on their plate. Parliament understood this well this session when it rejected a motion to ban foie gras.”