Entrepreneur Foie gras producers are trying to bounce back despite the crisis

Foie gras producers are trying to bounce back despite the crisis

Dive into the heart of foie gras. We are in Chalosse, in the Landes. In Chantal Brèthes, which raises geese, ducks and cultivates cereals. When she talks to her geese, she flatters them. In his head, the ravages of the two waves of bird flu three years ago are still there. She lost 20,000 birds there. I hated seeing them sick. The first time, they came to get them to shoot them. The second time around, we were asked to do it ourselves. “

The return of the virus to the gates of France in recent days has made producers tremble. All farms are on maximum alert in order toprevent a new offensive of this virus which is extremely contagious for poultry. On the eve of the end of year celebrations, it would be an economic cataclysm. The bill for the previous episodes was colossal. Losses reached 540 million euros over two years. The sector had to carry out a very profound revision of its habits and its installations to avoid a new health earthquake and to protect itself against all external contaminations. Cost of the operation: 220 million euros in 2016. Then, 130 million euros in 2017

The State, for its part, has done a lot to save what is one of the symbols of French gastronomy. However contested and attacked it may be. He widely opened the tap for aid in a sector listed as a UNESCO heritage site. Foie gras is a small industry. It supports 30,000 families in rural areas and represents nearly 100,000 direct and indirect jobs for a turnover of 2 billion euros.

The endangered goose

Despite the avalanche of new health constraints, investments and the accelerated attacks of detractors of force-feeding, Chantal, installed with her sister Lydie, has started breeding again. ” My geese, I go to see them every two hours. They are fragile kidneys. They do not tolerate cold or humidity. They are much more familiar than ducks. Much more fun too. “

She belongs to a category of endangered breeders in France. The herd of geese in France only has 250,000 heads when the ducks are 27 million. ” It was the consumer who chose in the 1980s ”, says Fabien Chevalier, the general manager of Maison Lafitte. ” The taste of duck liver is more marked, but without the slight bitterness of goose. More consensual. “ And above all, much cheaper. The goose is also more fragile, more complicated to force-feed. It should be done twice a day. The production cost is 30 to 40% higher ”, adds Fabien Chevalier.

Fourteen million ducks were slaughtered in France to stem the spread of the influenza virus from Asia, reducing the herd from 37 to 23 million heads. The whole industry has been hit. The hatcheries had to be destroyed. Shut down the 30,000 farms. Processing companies have had to reduce their activity. After weeks of layoffs, hundreds of layoffs have been decided. And other restructurings are in the pipeline. The biggest cooperatives are losing money.

Consumption plunge

The bird flu barely settled, it is the Covid-19 that has swept through. Customers have vanished. More restaurants (40% of purchases), more tourists, more markets, more fairs, more exports. No more events and big family reunions. Privileged consumption period, Easter saw activity collapse. Seven times less foie gras sold than a year earlier. The end-of-year celebrations had already been unfavorable with a drop in volumes sold by 10% between mid-November and the beginning of January 2019. In question? The capping of promotions introduced by the Egalim law, assures Fabien Chevalier. In an area where 80% of turnover was made under rebates, one can imagine the reality of the impact of such a measure. As a result, stocks have skyrocketed. The overproduction is there.

We will produce 26.5 million ducks in 2020. This is too much for the market ”, says Michel Fruchet, president of the Foie Gras palmipeds (Cifog). “Especially since in 2019 production was 30 million, for consumption down 12%. “ The big unknown, at this point, is the weight of the Covid-19. “We have reduced the sails, but will that be enough? “ asks Michel Fruchet.

A misfortune never comes alone, French companies have had valuable market shares stolen from the export of foie gras by Hungary and Bulgaria. The production costs are lower and the offers attractive. When avian flu broke out in France, Japan closed its borders to it. To the chagrin of exporters, for whom it is the biggest customer outside Europe.

Get out of the rut

The industry is fully mobilized to get out of the rut and revive consumption before the crucial holiday season. For the first time, the breeders opened the doors of their farms on the occasion of the Heritage Days, in mid-September. An educational approach on force-feeding and animal welfare.

These complex questions are not new. Thirty years ago, the British tried to obtain a ban on force-feeding from European authorities. “How about mixing pate and lard, instead of making the ducks suffer?” “, a representative of the United Kingdom was annoyed. The suggestion, which had made some smile, gives a good idea of ​​the depth of the incomprehension. And the irreconcilability of such points of view. Despite the energy deployed by the attackers, the foie gras industry is resisting. How much longer ?

The fight has gained in virulence. He crossed many other borders. Denmark, the UK, Australia, Israel and others have banned production on their territory. In the United States, the New York City Council has banned the sale of foie gras. In California, the case goes from rebound to rebound. After the Supreme Court upheld the ban in January 2019, a federal judge this summer allowed restaurants to offer it again, provided it had not been produced or purchased in California … In Chicago, some restaurateurs for a while removed it from the map, for fear of hostile actions against their establishment. But continued to serve it on the sly to loyal customers who demanded it.

The thorny question of force-feeding

In Europe, a directive of July 20, 1998 on the protection of animals specifies that“No animal may be fed or watered in such a way as to result in unnecessary damage”. A recommendation from the Council of the EU, which reinforced it a year later, stipulating that “Feeding methods which are a source of injury, anxiety or disease for ducks … must not be authorized”.

Arguments fiercely contested by breeders, who repeat over and over again that only animals that are well treated, unstressed, give quality products. They insist that wild geese and ducks spontaneously force-feed before the migrations to have energy reserves. May their digestive system perfectly tolerate this practice.

The interprofession points to the lack of scientific basis for the EU recommendation. “The experts who went to the farms knew nothing about ducks, to the point of having interpreted their panting as a manifestation of stress, whereas it is their way of regulating their temperature”, regrets Marie-Pierre Pé, director of Cifog.

Determined to protect itself from these attacks, the industry organized a barrage and multiplied weapons of all kinds, combining political, scientific and diplomatic support. Thus, after obtaining from INRA, in 2005, a study on 16,000 palmipeds concluding that “Hepatic steatosis resulting from force-feeding is a natural fattening process in these birds, which does not cause stress”, she turned to parliamentarians. The same year, they voted for an amendment to the agricultural orientation law, which makes foie gras a part of the cultural and gastronomic heritage of France. This amendment is far from trivial. It allows France to assert a provision of the Amsterdam Treaty, according to which measures relating to animal welfare must not go against religious and cultural rites.

Conquer young consumers

The file is as thick as it is complex and, frankly, as a last resort, it is the consumer who will decide. The industry knows this, and here again, it does not skimp on the means to be implemented. The Club des Amis du Foie Gras, which brings together all kinds of influential people, is one of them. Substantial investment in R&D is another. To say nothing of promotions.

Forty companies organized 267 communication days at E.Leclerc, Intermarché and Carrefour to revive the conflict. We hope that this campaign, which draws heavily on the French origin, will have the same success as that of the duck breast that consumers are now snapping up.

The conquest of young people is another part of the program to revive consumption. The young chef Adrien Cachot goes “Revisit” duck, says Michel Fruchet, president of the inter-profession. Two young people straight out of their business school have opened four bistros entirely dedicated to duck, under the banner Duck Street. In Lille and Paris. It serves platters, burgers with foie gras, confit or dried duck breast, rillettes.

The real boost would be the export. At half mast in the first half of the year, it could hold some good surprises. In China and the United States, the necessary approvals have been issued. Hope for the foie gras industry.

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