We uncover how food is packaged and sold in France – and lift the lid on some of the dangers which come with the country’s agricultural abundance.
In France, a country boasting a choice of a different cheese for practically every day of the year, eating is not simply a neutral act, it’s a culture.
You’ve seen the celebrated outdoor food markets full of oozing cheeses, roasting chickens, salmon on shaved ice, and glossy fruit and vegetables. It’s a full-on sensory assault. There are no neat and clinical polystyrene trays here.
This is gastronomic France – bountiful and fresh – eat it up.Many in France see the spread of mass produced, chemically-treated or genetically modified food as striking at the very heart of French cultural and culinary traditions.
But the scene belies the fact that 80 percent of food consumed by the average French person is factory-produced.
José Bové, the Roquefort cheese maker who ransacked a McDonald’s in Millau, (south-west France), as an anti-globalisation statement, is the rustic pin-up boy of the French charge against globalisation. He casts McDonalds as a symbol of standardisation and of industrialised food, contrasting it to French farming traditions linked to the land, to local farmers and their know-how.
Bové ignores the fact that French farmers provide McDonalds France with 98 percent of its produce.
But eating is, and always will be, a piece of national pride in France.
During the 1950s approximately 40 percent of French families were farmers. Today, only five per cent of the population live off the land.
Farming and agriculture
More than 50 percent of France’s land surface, however, is consecrated to farming and agriculture and, of course, most French farmers use technology and chemicals within industrial farming techniques. France is, after all, the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural products — and Europe’s largest.
The French way of guaranteeing quality boils down to labels (called ‘étiquettes’).
They invented the now widespread Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), in the 1920s. This system of labelling products – wine, cheese, chickens, potatoes, olive oil and even lentils – serves as a guarantee of the origin of a product and its authenticity. Authenticity, runs the idea, also guarantees a product’s quality.
These are not labels that tell you what’s in the food, right down to the last molecule; instead, a stamp guarantees that the product was grown in a particular region, under particular conditions. Only a product from that region can bear that label. The product must correspond to all the characteristics found in the region.
Recent food scares, however, have shaken French consumer confidence. The biggest shock came with the emergence of ESB – ‘mad cow disease’. But there’s also been widespread incidents of high levels of antibiotics discovered in pork, as well as veal pumped-up with anabolic steroids, and the false labelling of meat, cereals and even organic produce.
Just last month the European Commission announced that almost one in 20 crops in Europe is contaminated with illegal levels of pesticides — and France registered one of the highest levels of contamination.
More than half of its production was found affected, and 8.3 percent of it contained higher-than-permitted levels. French lettuce, notably that grown in greenhouses, showed elevated levels of pesticides due to the speed at which it was grown and harvested.
France, is the world’s second-largest consumer of pesticides after the US — and the world’s first-largest consumer of fungicides.
The widespread use of chemicals is one reason people in France are turning to ‘bio’, or organic, products. In fact, almost 30 percent of French are now ‘bio’ buyers and one in five French say they have given up eating beef.
The declared trend is towards buying products which come with a quality label, like the popular “label rouge” certificate. Labels are everywhere — but what do they really mean?
Photo credit: Olearys (fruit and veg).