"Meat wars" get serious in France

PETAFranceMeatPARIS—A decade ago vegetarian visitors to France had to face scornful looks and a diet of omelettes and salad when eating at restaurants or in French homes.

But times have changed.

Not only are there over 320 vegetarian-friendly restaurants in Paris alone, but the country’s butchers now fear the popularity of vegan and vegetarian lifestyles is threatening French culture.

In June, the French Federation of Butchers sought the help of the government against the rising number of attacks from vegan activists, who have been targeting shops with anti-meat graffiti and stickers.

"It's terror that these people are seeking to sow, in their aim of making a whole section of French culture disappear," Federation chief Jean-François Guihard wrote in a letter to Interior Minister Gérard Collomb.

While French consumers, particularly in urban areas, have been warming up to meat-free cuisine on health and animal-welfare concerns, the ready availability of quinoa and kale isn’t likely to replace their penchant for boeuf bourguignon and steak frites.

Since 1959, Parisians and tourists have been patiently waiting in line for up to 30 minutes to gain a table at Le Relais de Venise, an unassuming restaurant in the 17th arrondissement (district) in northern Paris that lists only one main course on the menu: entrecote steak accompanied by a secret sauce and double portion of fries.

“I come here to treat myself,” said Alice, 35, waiting in line with her office co-workers at lunchtime. “I try to eat less meat and charcuterie for health reasons but I don’t want to give it up completely. After all it’s part of the French way: we like to live well and enjoy nice food and drink.”

While their views on meat eating might differ, the growing ranks of vegans and vegetarians in the land of gastronomy share the same approach. Even though people who eschew all animal products, including wool and leather, remains a tiny percentage in France, around 5% percent of French people consider themselves vegetarian or vegan, according to a Harris Interactive poll conducted in 2017.

“France is certainly behind countries like Germany in terms of vegan and vegetarian lifestyles. But we remain very demanding when it comes to the quality of the alternatives to meat and dairy products,” said Yannick Fosse, one of the three young entrepreneurs who founded Les Petits Veganne, an artisanal organic vegan cheesemaker based in Lorraine, eastern France.

The trio spent more than a year perfecting a recipe that would meet the exacting standards of French palates.

“There is huge demand for our products because we use a slow process that ensures the flavor and the texture resemble those of traditional French cheese,” he added.

The meat-free trend isn’t restricted to haute cuisine.

According to Herta, a supermarket delicatessen brand, 30 percent of people in France are “flexitarians,” opting for a plant-based diet with the occasional inclusion of meat. The findings have prompted the company to launch a range of vegetable-based meat substitutes to appeal to the changing taste of French consumers.

And in a worrying sign for the poultry, pork and beef farmers, at least 50 percent of people in France say they want to increase consumption of vegetable-based food, according to an Ifop/Lesieur poll.

Farmers and butchers also seem concerned about a significant fall in meat consumption in France, which has slumped 20 percent in the past 20 years.

Meat consumption in France was estimated at 185 pounds per person in 2017 compared with an average of 152 pounds for the rest of the European Union, according to French farming agency FranceAgriMer. But it’s still well below the 207-pound peak in 1998.

These figures point to increased awareness among the French public about the effects of intensive farming on animal welfare and the environment, said Eddy Fougier, a French political scientist specializing in protest movements.

“There is of course the trendy aspect of the ‘veggie’ lifestyle that has been seized by food producers because it’s fashionable," he said. "But it’s obvious we are eating less meat and our attitude toward animals is changing, as people come to terms with the reality of intensive animal farming and its negative effects on the environment. For example, the proliferation of toxic seaweed on the coast of Brittany, fueled by intensive pig farming.”

“Today, fewer people find it acceptable to buy eggs laid by hens kept in cages," he added. "They’d rather eat organic or free-range eggs."
The involvement of French celebrities has also contributed to spreading this message. Earlier this year, well-known actress Sophie Marceau spoke out against the production of battery-cage eggs as part of an awareness campaign launched by animal protection association L214.

For many years French icon Brigitte Bardot has been at the forefront of several campaigns against bullfighting, hunting and animal cruelty, such as the breeding of ducks for foie gras, or duck liver. The production of this luxury food involves force feeding the animals with a tube to obtain an enlarged liver with a fatty texture that is prized by gourmets around the world.

However, farmers and butcher are fighting back and resorting to lobbying against the perceive threat against France’s tradition of meat eating.

Their strategy seems to be working.

A proposal to require schools to introduce a weekly vegetarian meal was swiftly rejected in parliament. On the back of an amendment submitted by a farmer lawmaker, vegetarian food producers no longer have the right to use the words “steak,” “fillet,” “bacon,” “sausage” or any meat-related terms to market products that are not partly or wholly made up of meat.

The regulation also applies to vegetarian and vegan products sold as dairy alternatives. For example, Les Petits Veganne has to market its version of camembert cheese with the similar-sounding “camembaire.”

Refusals to comply with these regulations could lead to fines of up to $350,000.

Photo: PETA France tweeted "The real victims of violence in the meat industry are animals exploited for their meat."
Credit: Courtesy photo by animal protection association L214

Story/photo published date

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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