Land of boeuf bourguignon faces wrath of ‘Veganistan’ activists

Demonstrators asking for the closure of all slaughterhouses and a stop to animal meat consumption hold placards as they march in Paris on June 23, 2018.
Demonstrators asking for the closure of all slaughterhouses and a stop to animal meat consumption hold placards as they march in Paris on June 23, 2018.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS (BLOOMBERG) - In the land of boeuf bourguignon and steak-frites, eating meat is turning controversial. Even selling it is becoming dangerous.

The vegan and animal welfare wave has not spared France, where butchers and slaughterhouses are increasingly coming under attack. The French butchers’ lobby this week sought police protection after vegan activists stoned a butcher’s shop on Sunday. This followed incidents in April, when some meat-selling shops were doused in fake blood.

“French consumers are finally waking up, decades after everybody else,” said Geoffroy Le Guilcher, author of a book on slaughterhouses and the publisher of another on animal rights activism. “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 countries such as the United States are immersed in debates about 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), has long lacked wide support in France. Cruelty is still sometimes presented as an unavoidable path to fine gastronomy, for example with foie gras, which involves force-feeding geese and ducks.

The treatment of animals at some abbatoirs in the country has made headlines from time to time. But with the animal-products industry generating €26 billion (S$41.5 billion) in annual revenue and employing thousands of people across the country, these concerns have often been soon forgotten.

Organisations such as L214, created in 2008, seek to change that with spectacular actions, including video-taping and releasing on social media evidence of animal mistreatment to create awareness. The group now employs over 40 people and is regularly joined by hundreds of supporters to implement actions.

On a different front, Greenpeace, which pushes for vegetarian meals in school cafeterias, recently released a report showing that most of them in France offer meat at each and every meal, bringing the daily protein level for pupils way above the recommendations of the national agency for food safety.

In a country where chefs and nutritionists alike have scorned the idea of a meatless meal since World War II, the surge in animal rights activism to try and convince more consumers to become vegetarian or vegan has triggered some outcry.

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

A butcher’s shop window was stoned on Sunday night in the Paris region and tagged with a sign that read “stop speciesism” to denounce the exploitation of other species by mankind, Le Parisien reported. In April, seven meat shops were doused with fake blood in the northern Hauts-de-France region, while another and a fishmonger suffered broken windows, according to Agence France-Presse.

Five animal rights activists were fined near Paris on Tuesday for storming a local slaughterhouse in April, trying to block operations and taking pictures in a protest staged by the group 269 Liberation Animale. Members of  L214 have already been fined for getting into the same slaughterhouse and filming the gassing of pigs there in 2016.

The frontpage headline for the newspaper L’Opinion this week read Welcome To Veganistan, characterising vegan and vegetarian promoters as “a threat to freedom rights”. 

While the French remain among the world’s biggest meat-eaters, sales have gradually declined for two decades amid rising health concerns about cancer, cholesterol and diabetes. Questions have also been raised about industrial farming – from working conditions on farms and plants to sanitary issues such as the mad cow disease or the environmental impact of water draining and global warming.

French consumption of meat was estimated at 84kg a person in 2017 versus an average of 69kg for the European Union, measured in carcass weight equivalent, which includes fat and bones, according to official statistics agency FranceAgriMer. That compares with a 94kg peak in 1998. Since then, beef consumption has fallen by over 20 percent, only partial compensated by an increase in chicken buying.

The number of French consumers seeking to cut back on meat has reached 30 percent and will continue to rise, according to a study by research institute Xerfi, published last year. Vegetable protein is becoming an unavoidable substitute after supermarket sales surged by 82 per cent to about €30 million in 2016, and is set to grow by another 25 per cent a year through 2020, it said.

Sensing the trend, companies such as cold cuts producer Fleury Michon have added vegan products to their offer, while dairy giant Danone is expanding milk-free ranges after acquiring health-foods-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’s 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".