French food culture under attack

Vegan activists are targeting butchers and abattoirs in France, a country whose culture 'owes much to artisan butchers, farmers and cheese shops'

PARIS • Vegan activists in France are going for blood, stoning a butcher's shop recently.

That followed incidents in April when some meat-selling shops were splashed with fake blood.

In the land of boeuf bourguignon and steak-frites, eating meat is turning controversial and the French butchers' lobby has sought police protection .

The vegan and animal welfare wave has not spared France, where butchers and abattoirs are increasingly coming under attack.

"French consumers are finally waking up, decades after everybody else," Geoffroy Le Guilcher, author of a book on abattoirs and publisher of another on animal rights activism, said. "A new generation of activists is making people realise that even in the land of meat, there is very little that makes the case for having it."

While nations such as the United States are chewing over issues such as lab-grown or "fake" meat, the French are only starting to envisage life without animal protein.

Animal welfare, promoted by prominent figures such as former actress Brigitte Bardot or pet magazine 60 Millions d'Amis (60 Million Friends) have long lacked wide support in France.

Cruelty is still sometimes presented as an unavoidable path to fine gastronomy.

And with the animal-products industry generating €26 billion (S$41.5 billion) in annual revenue and employing thousands of people, these concerns have often been shoved aside.

Organisations such as L214 seek to change that, including video-taping and releasing evidence of animal mistreatment.

Greenpeace, which pushes for vegetarian meals in school cafeterias, reported that most of them in France offer meat at each and every meal.

In a country where chefs and nutritionists have scorned the idea of a meatless meal since World War II, the surge in animal rights activism has triggered some outcry.

In a letter to the interior ministry, France's CFBCT, which represents butchers, said it was worried about media attention to vegan habits and about increasing violent acts against meat vendors.

Members of L214 have already been fined for getting into an abattoir and filming the gassing of pigs in 2016.

But while the French remain among the world's biggest meat eaters, sales have actually declined gradually for two decades amid rising health concerns about cancer, cholesterol and diabetes.

The number of French consumers seeking to cut back on meat has reached 30 per cent and will continue to rise, according to a study by research institute Xerfi that was published last year.

Vegetable protein is becoming a substitute, with supermarket sales surging by 82 per cent to about €30 million in 2016.

Demand is set to grow by another 25 per cent a year through 2020, it noted.

Sensing the trend, companies such as cold cuts producer Fleury Michon have added vegan products to their offerings.

Dairy giant Danone is expanding milk-free ranges after acquiring health-food maker WhiteWave Foods.

France's largest retailer, Carrefour, launched Carrefour Veggie in 2015, a brand of vegetarian products to tap the "flexitarian" market of partially vegetarian consumers.

For the French meat industry, the writing is on the wall.

According to the butchers' lobby, the trend threatens "a whole part of French culture that owes so much to artisan butchers, farmers, fishmongers and cheese shops". And that threat is now right at their doorsteps.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2018, with the headline 'French food culture under attack'. Print Edition | Subscribe