France faces butter shortage

PARIS • The French melt for butter - it is a staple of sauces and baking alike. So an empty butter shelf in France is like a dry baguette: deeply disconcerting.

But with a slump in European dairy production and a surge in global demand, that is exactly what some French are encountering in their stores.

In truth, the shortages, though noticeable nation-wide, have been sporadic and France gives no appearance of grinding to a halt. But in a country that by some measures consumes more butter a head than anywhere else, that is a fine point.

French news outlets are giving advice on how to replace butter or churn your own. One headline asked whether there would be butter for Christmas.

The agriculture minister faced questions in Parliament. Online, shoppers shared pictures of empty shelves and jokers ran fake advertisements offering small amounts of butter for ludicrous prices.

Last year, France consumed about 8kg of butter per capita, according to an upcoming report by the International Dairy Federation. That is over twice the European Union average and more than three times the figure in the United States.

Mr Gerard Calbrix, head of economic affairs at the Association Of French Dairy Processors, said the industry had been expecting a crunch since spring. "Over the past year, from June 2016 to this summer, milk production has fallen in Europe," he said. "At the same time, demand for butter has increased, in all world markets."

Dairy production in Europe slumped after the summer of last year because of bad yields from fodder crops and unfavourable weather.

Meanwhile, as butter has shed some of its unhealthy image, demand has risen worldwide, especially in the US - where fast-food chain McDonald's promised to put butter back in its recipes last year - and China.

In France alone, butter consumption increased five per cent from 2013 to 2015, according to a recent report by an umbrella organisation for the nation's dairy industry, Le Cniel.

Prices have climbed to nearly US$8,000 (S$10,800) a tonne in September, from roughly US$2,800 in April last year.

But only France has seen shortages because of the way its food supply chain is organised. Mr Calbrix noted that price negotiations between suppliers and big retailers are done once a year in February.

"The absence of certain products on shelves is an indicator of tensions between some large retailers and their suppliers," Le Cniel said in its report, noting that many retailers were refusing to pay the increased market price for butter.

The government has suggested that fears of a mass shortage are overblown. Mr Stephane Travert, the agriculture minister, acknowledged last Wednesday that pricing disagreements were keeping butter out of some stores. But he told France Inter radio that "strictly speaking, there is no shortage".

Industries that use butter, such as bakeries and pastry shops, have had no choice but to pay up and, in some cases, pass on the higher cost, said Mr Matthieu Labbe, managing director for Federation Of Bakery Companies.

It is unclear how long the shortages will linger. The government argues that production traditionally picks up in winter, but industry pundits counter that demand also increases towards Christmas.

Could users make do with cheaper substitutes such as margarine?

"There's no comparison," Mr Labbe said. "If you want to preserve the quality of our products, you have to use butter."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 01, 2017, with the headline 'France faces butter shortage'. Print Edition | Subscribe