Eating seems like such a fundamental concept. But, as a society, we never take the time to question our collective habits; we just focus on our diets. Thus, I challenge you to consider the following questions: The last time you went to the grocery store to buy chicken, did you select the one that looked large and meaty or did you go straight for one from Bresse? Did you specifically scan over the food label just to check its sell-by date and price or did you stop and speak to the butcher? Do you have family members from the countryside, maybe even relatives who farm? Living in France for the past four months, I have come to discover some very noticeable differences between the way Americans do their grocery shopping versus how the French do theirs. Consequently, I intend to show that these differences stem from the relationships that people from each country share with their land and agriculture.
What is in a name? Well, when you are talking about food in France, a lot actually. The notion that the French are inextricably linked to their land derives from the privilege of naming a product according to its region of origin. False claims in naming are taken very seriously in France and can result in harsh penalties under law. When you walk into specialized shops—fromageries, boucheries, poissonneries, and charcuteries—you immediately notice labeling and hanging signs stating facts such as where the product came from, how long it was aged, when it was killed, and sometimes even the family name of the farm. Many French find this information to be very important because it provides a story behind the food they are planning to consume. Perhaps they have travelled to these regions and seen the treatment of animals, the great care farmers take, or this is even where their family lives. There is a strong sense of pride associated with every aspect of production, from traditions to family lineage of businesses to naming products, reaching all the way down to the consumer. The consumer deserves to know that they are purchasing a quality product. Thus, when they look at the label, they’re not just looking to see what it is, the price, and expiration date, as the average American would—they’re looking for their link to the land.
Another way of describing this link between consumers and food is traceability or traçabilité. Before I define this term, I will briefly explain the context behind the agency that enforces food policy in Europe because its very existence directly affects food production in France. The European Food Safety Authorities (EFSA) was created ten years ago “following the mad cow disease scandal, to ensure EU-wide scientific oversight and effective risk management. Its work directly impacts 500 million European citizens, 12 million farms, and a vast number of processing and catering businesses within the EU” (“10thEFSA Anniversary”). One principle regulation it imposed in 2002 defined traceability as the: “ability to trace and follow a food, feed, food-producing animal or substance intended to be, or expected to be incorporated into a food or feed, through all stages of production, processing and distribution” (Bertolini, Bevilacqua, and Massini). Any food manufactured or imported to the EU must abide by this regulation even if the manufacturer’s home country does not impose such strict parameters. The French found comfort in new regulations like this because what had happened with mad cow disease had betrayed "the integrity of the terroir at the heart of cultural identity” (Douget and O’Connor). It is in this association between traceability and cultural identity that we find the French attachment to their products. Beef was not just a regular product that had to go off the shelves; it was many peoples’ livelihoods put on pause, it was the indefinite absence of esteemed traditional dishes, it was a fear instilled around the dinner table. I find it amazing that food traçabilité has such an enormous influence on an entire society (even outside of the mad cow crisis) because before coming to France, I had never once looked at a meat label and wondered where the animals were raised, I just accepted the USDA stamp of approval and that was that.
Amid these new realizations about food production and traceability, I started to question my irritation with produce. Why was it that every time I went to bite into a grape, I couldn’t help but get a mouthful of seeds? Not only was this ruining the taste because I wasn’t sure if I should swallow or spit out the seeds, but I was frustrated that I had tried every kind of grape at the neighborhood grocery store in hopes of finding seedless grapes to no avail. I took to the Internet and found that seedless grapes did not exist in France because they are a type of genetically modified (GM) food and are therefore prohibited here and in most of the remaining European Union.
The fierce opposition to GM products in France is astonishing since there is little to no public debate or concern over the vast presence of everyday genetically modified foods found in the United States. During discussions in my Business of Food course, we narrowed down the main reasons why Europeans are against GM crops: not knowing the long-term health effects; that it is not entirely possible to contain GM crops from cross pollination with surrounding crops; the possibility of losing bio-diversity; that GM seeds are more expensive; that all GM seeds are three-quarters controlled by multinational corporations that are difficult to regulate; that GM crops—like Golden Rice—have made false claims in the past; and that traceability is threatened by the introduction of GM products. At the moment, there are only two GMs currently grown in Europe allowed by the EU—corn and potato—but in recent years France has put a ban on anything GM.
On August 1st of this year, the Conseil d’Etat ruled that if there were proper measures taken, the GM corn crop could be introduced. On the other hand the Ministers of Environment and Agriculture vowed to uphold the moratorium on planting GM crops in France since this is the sentiment of 80% of the French public (Jamieson).
If there is so much controversy in Europe, mainly in France, over GM products, why is it a seldom-discussed topic in the United States? When I walk into a grocery store at home, I cannot easily distinguish what foods are genetically modified or not. In fact, it is voluntary in the United States for companies to label their products “GM.” Despite all the negative possible impacts listed above, US consumers are optimistic for the possible benefits that could come from GM products. Similar to Europeans, Americans are also very concerned with health, safety, and environmental issues. One study shows that although US consumers preferred non-GM products, GM products are acceptable if they exhibit clear-cut benefits. Contrastingly, Northern Europeans view that the benefits do not impact the consumers’ attitudes regarding GMs and thus they are opposed. (Costa-Font, Gil, and Traill)
Why do we allow these foods in the U.S. and why do we average Americans feel under-informed compared to the average French? The USDA has published studies showing that GM’s are not harmful to humans and are very beneficial for our environment because the use of GM crops means a reduction in the use of synthetic pesticides, easier weed control, better-adapted for withstanding devastating disasters, possibly better crop quality, and larger yields (“Biotechnology”). As consumers, we accept what the USDA tells us is okay to eat because otherwise it would not be found on shelves in our supermarket. We set the stage for the industrialization where more products mean more yields, which means more money for the farmer and GM business. Immediate health risks are not yet apparent and it is still too early to gauge how GM foods will affect humans, animals, and lands in the long run.
I find myself here as a student and temporary Parisian, trying to make sense of these two worlds. At the beginning of the semester, I was constantly reminding myself of the differences in food culture. The value around traceability had no place in my personal food culture before arriving in France, nor did I really know what it meant. It was not important to me where my food was coming from but rather if what I was buying looked appetizing or had high marks from the USDA. If I compared steaks at home, I wouldn’t ask the butcher which he preferred because I quite frankly never interacted with him at the grocery store since he only came out to restock the aisle. I feel that my link to the land is missing because of the environment in which I grew up. The French associate different products with different regions of the country while I associate different “regions” to mean different states in the U.S. At the same time, for example, not many Americans are particular about where their fruit specifically came from. Our country is so large that it doesn’t make sense to use regional references.
Population-wise, we are larger with more mouths to feed so the art of convenience suits us better. We say that we would rather go to grocery stores to buy all of our necessities in one place rather than stop in specialized shops. On the other hand, maybe this is also due to the fact that specialized shops are not abundant in the U.S. And why might that be? Food production around the world, especially in the U.S., has shifted in the past few decades and most suppliers are now corporate because there is a demand for food to be cheap for various socio-economic reasons. As a result of this shift, “millions of farms have folded as government policy has encouraged larger, more intensive farm operations, such as the factory farm model for producing meat, eggs and dairy” (“Food Economics”).
We see that even the French agricultural food sector is expanding; France exported €35 billion worth of processed products in 2008 (Agri-Food Industry). Yet, with this growth, how has French society allowed for both industrial and local production of food to coexist? We can help find answers to this by relating to the ‘Slow Food Movement,” which originated in Europe (Italy) in 1986 and aims:
to preserve both commercial food products, and species of animals and plants, and urges people to be willing to pay more for food. Its supporters feel that people should use the time that modern conveniences have freed up for them by cooking more. (Slow Food)
Beyond just the scope of this movement, the French will relentlessly try to keep this balance with local production because maintaining a relation to the land is deeply engrained in their values, regardless of generation.
Now that I have researched and have a better overall understanding of French culture, I see why they feel so strongly about traceability and are so resiliently opposed to GM products. I believe that it is extremely important to understand that the French are close to their land, their food supply, and traditions because they link their cultural identity to these aspects of daily life. The French respect the quality of their food because it embodies the integrity of their terroir (geographical characteristics) and patrimoine (natural pride), in a way that other societies cannot easily grasp because of cultural beliefs and industrialization.
I realize I’m living in two paradoxes. First, there is my American paradox where society prides itself in the openness and diversity of the citizen, but is mute about GM’s and turns a blind-eye towards the mass take-over of industrialized food production. For a society that consumes at an alarming rate, I feel that the food industry is encompassed by secrets. On the other hand, in the French paradox, the individual is seen as a neutral citizen who is not meant to stick out from the rest. However, French terroir and food is embraced for its extreme diversity, for it is represents the very cement of the community. The citizen’s life is private, but food culture, debate, and variety is celebrated across different forums in society.
My best advice to give to students coming to France is to be open-minded. The differences in food culture and daily life will take time to understand and sink in. It is not worth it to get frustrated or upset and write off these experiences without getting the chance to reflect back with a deeper understanding. You will learn to appreciate, in time, this diversity from your ordinary life back in the U.S. Instead of mimicking your routines from home, observe other people and how they carry out their errands. Walking to the metro one day after class during my first month here, I watched a little elderly woman who could barely see over the counter order a rotisserie chicken from the butcher on Rue Rambuteau. The smell enticed me; I had to stop and order my own. I remember thinking how expensive it was—€13—when I was able to buy them back home for $6 at the grocery store. It ended up being delicious and entirely worth it (I have to admit, it did turn into at least three meals and then soup). For some reason I didn’t buy my next chicken until three months later, but the price didn’t matter to me this time. I knew I was buying dinner from my trusted local butcher who had done all the work from picking the source farm to cooking the chicken to perfection without the end customer in mind. I enjoy that I’ve adopted a relationship with my food because I actually care about its traçabilité—or maybe it’s the fact that I’m surrounded by a society that does—but either way, it has rooted me to this wonderful French culture I can’t believe I’m leaving. Remember that only you have the ability to adapt your behaviors to help you better grasp why the French carry out their daily tasks in ways that are foreign to your cultural background—embrace them! Your appetite will thank you.
Jennifer Huey studied abroad in Paris for the Fall 2013 term. This is an essay she wrote for her French Civilization and Culture course, taught by Dr. Hélène Marineau at CEA Paris. She is currently a student at California Polytechnic State University - San Luis Obispo.
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