Vive la difference

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Risk, France

Vive la difference
Brits' love-hate relationship with France has waxed and waned for centuries. But, as Rick Pendrous discovers, the French still have a thing or two to teach us about food

You English don't like offal very much do you; not like us French, remarks Michel Ganneau, as he points enthusiastically at a huge array of liver and tripe; head meat and trotters on display. It's very early on a slightly nippy Monday morning and we're in the offal hall of the huge Rungis market 6km outside Paris.

Ganneau is responsible for Rungis (see pictures above), which lays claim to being the biggest food market on the Continent - if not the world - housing 21,300 companies, employing 12,400 workers and occupying 232 hectares of land.

Rungis has sales approaching euro 7.1bn. It handles 1.5Mt of produce a year, covering fruit and vegetables (1Mt/year), meat products, seafood, dairy and delicatessen products - not to mention 57M bunches of flowers and potted plants. It handles 100,000t a year each of beef, pork and poultry; veal and lamb, some horsemeat and game. Offal accounts for around 40,000t a year.

Ganneau's offal comments illustrate one of the many contrasts between Britain and France. Food and drink provides an appropriate metaphor for the many cultural and social differences that divide our two nations. Whereas the French retain a close connection with, and passion for, their food, too many of us Brits appear to be more interested in watching TV programmes about cooking rather than actually doing it.

Such differences are played out in relationships with our Gallic neighbours and ways of doing business; different interpretation of regulatory controls; and, in fact, different approaches to life generally. Notably, they are exemplified in the ways in which the thorny issues of obesity and food safety are dealt.

Take nutritional health and food safety, for instance. There doesn't (at least not yet) appear to be the same obsession about the nutritional content of foods in France; and while French manufacturers are reducing salt levels in processed foods, for example, labelling of salt, fat and sugar is not sparking the same heated debate there.

Passion for ready meals

It is a common misconception, however, that French housewives traipse each day to their local market to buy fresh ingredients with which to cook their family meals from scratch. Time pressures resulting from two parents working are as common in France as they are in the UK.

So, while the French might still be umbilically connected to their farming heritage, they are increasingly buying into today's convenience culture even though, according to some, they are still a few years behind the UK.

Take Fleury Michon, for example, one of the leading chilled ready meals producers in France - Europe's second biggest ready meals market after the UK. Ready meals now account for 50% of Fleury Michon's euro 450M turnover - a sector in which the company was not active five years ago, claims international development manager Nicolas Seguier.

Fleury Michon, which historically was better known for supplying processed packs of sliced ham and terrine, has seven production units at various sites in western France, including Pouzauges in the Vendée, Mouilleron-en-Pareds, Chantonnay and Pélan-le-Grand, employing 3,500 staff in total.

Seguier notes, however, that - as with the UK - deflationary pressures have also been an issue in France over the past few years.

While Fleury Michon's volumes have grown, he says, value has decreased by 2.3%. In response, the company has made a strategic move into the 'value end' of the market, with meals containing lower protein levels and priced at just euro 2.5, says Seguier. "This opens up new customer markets, such as students," he says. "Affordability is one of the four pillars of our strategy."

Fleury Michon has undergone significant evolution in addition to its move into ready meals. It has also exited the cooking aids sector and diversified into other areas: including the production of crab sticks - where it now claims around 22% of the French market - and desserts.

The company makes much of the extended shelf-life of its ready meals, which is achieved through pasteurisation techniques. "The French market is used to a longer shelf-life," claims Seguier. "Twenty-one days is guaranteed." This contrasts with a seven to 10 day shelf-life for chilled ready meals in the UK.

In response to demand, Fleury Michon has reduced the salt content of its products by 25% over the past two years, claims Seguier. "We were very high [in salt] from consumer tests," he admits.

Like the UK, interest in functional ingredients is also growing in France and Fleury Michon's latest new product development includes omega-3 fortified ham.

However, concerns about the levels of fat and sugar in food do not appear as big an issue in France as they are in the UK. This may have something to do with the fact that the nation, which consumes some of the most calorifically-dense food in the world, also has some of the lowest obesity levels.

"We are fighting against the fashion of fads - such as low fat, which did not take off in France," says Seguier. He adds that while there is some consumer pressure: "I suppose it is not as strong as in the UK."

With one in four meals in France now being eaten out of the home, claims Seguier, Fleury Michon is also expanding into the foodservice sector - in areas such as vending, through machines with the latest integral microwaves.

The company has no plans to target British consumers, given the UK's dominant own-label ready meal sector, say Seguier. However, it is increasing its exports into southern Europe and is just about to launch into the US, which is currently dominated by frozen ready meals.

Food safety and risk perception

Differences between Britain and France are not restricted to what we eat; how we eat it; and when we eat it (two-hour lunch breaks - rather than crumbs on the keyboard - are still the norm for many French workers).

The French approach to food safety - notably to risk and risk perception - is quite different; albeit based on equally rigorous science.

French food safety experts have plans ready should a major avian flu outbreak occur. Meanwhile, others are involved in the evaluation and control of food safety: from pathogens like salmonella in poultry, to parasitic infections such as toxoplasmosis in pigs and wild boar.

However, the Agence Français Des Securite Sanitaire Des Aliments (AFSSA) - France's equivalent of the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) which has an annual budget of euro 65M - appears to have a far more relaxed view about the risks that individuals should take when consuming food.

For example, despite the risks involved, AFSSA doesn't seem too bothered that many French consumers are happy to chomp their way through mounds of steak tartar (raw minced steak with a raw egg or two mixed in).

AFSSA, which was set up in 1999, has a particularly strong veterinary and animal welfare bias, in addition to providing food risk assessment and risk management services. However, by stressing its risk assessment role, potential conflicts are evident with the Parma-based European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and these are recognised by some AFFSA scientists who question EFSA's ability to fulfil its defined role with the limited financial and manpower resources at its disposal.

Despite this, there are some experiences shared by AFFSA and the FSA - particularly regarding dealings with their respective national press. AFSSA epidemiologist François Moutou is still bruised by the mauling he received at the hands of the French press following a limited outbreak of avian flu in the country earlier this year. He believes more could have been done to communicate the science behind the risks to lessen the damage caused to poultry sales.

So while we might criticise our French cousins for their laid back lifestyles, we have more in common than we think. And who knows, perhaps a more relaxed approach to life could help the British inject a little va va voom back into our own relationship with food.

Country overview

Population:​ 60M

GDP:​ euro 2,286bn

Farms:​ 450,000

Food processors:​ 100,000

**Meat processing

plants:** 30,000

Fish processors:​ 6,500

Regional expertise

Western France is one of the nation's most important agricultural regions, with both high numbers of farms and food manufacturers. According to the latest figures from Ernst & Young, France beat the UK last year for foreign inward investment in the food and drink sector. An earlier study from KPMG ranked Poitiers in western France as the cheapest place in Europe to process food, followed by Mulhouse.

However, the region of France around Lyon also lays claim to being strong in food manufacture - especially for meat processing. It is also the base for various technical services companies, like Europrobe, which has developed a rapid 24h Listeria testing technique and is currently in search of a UK distributor.

According to the Lyon area economic development agency, Aderly, the region is home to a number of major food companies including Nestlé, Danone and Sara Lee, and is witnessing growing inward investment. "The kind of companies we are drawing to Lyon now are more research oriented - high tech and high value, rather than the big manufacturing sector," says Aderly general secretary Coralie Grimand.

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