French farmers see red at ‘meat-free day’ campaign

Angry French cattle farmers have forced catering giant Sodexo to back down after it promoted a “meat-free day” in company canteens, suggesting the country still has a long way to go before it embraces vegetarianism.


When catering giant Sodexo tried to launch a “red-meat-free day” as part of a campaign for sustainable development, French cattle farmers were less than impressed.

The company’s awareness campaign took place in just 50 of the 700 company canteens it runs. One poster showed a cow with the caption: “Producing one kilo of meat pollutes as much as driving 200 km”. The second displayed a slab of beef and a set of statistics: “The average European meat-eater will consume 760 chickens, 20 pigs, 29 sheep and five cows over the course of his life.

The two posters, put up in early April, were spotted and photographed by a farmer on June 8 in France’s western Pays de la Loire – and within hours furious farmers were rallying in protest in front of Sodexo’s offices in Nantes in western France demanding an immediate halt to the campaign.

The head of France’s all-powerful farmers’ union FNSEA, Xavier Beulin, wrote an angry letter to Sodexo’s CEO, Pierre Bellon, accusing the company of “putting meat (…) on trial”.

“Why heap scorn on our sector by insulting common sense, the French culinary tradition and the passionate work of thousands of cattle farmers?” he raged.

Sodexo meekly apologised in a press release and conceded that some of the assertions in the posters “did not correspond to reality” – in particular its references to the greenhouse effect of meat production.

The company also repeated its “commitment to offer varied and balanced food, among which different types of meat, because they provide quality protein.”

Meat ‘deeply ingrained’ in French culture

One of the offensive posters
The poster says: Did you know? Producing one kilo of meat pollutes as much as driving 200 km. Methane emitted by cows is a greenhouse-effect gas 20 times stronger than CO2.

But the meat farmers’ angry reaction is about much more than an attempt to protect their livelihoods - it is also a broader sign that France, the country of steack-frites and foie gras is maybe not quite ready for vegetarianism, even just one day a week.

“It would be excessive to say that French cattle farmers feel economically threatened by Sodexo’s campaign,” said Hervé Plagnol, editor of the weekly newsletter AgraPresse. “It’s not as if a huge supermarket chain had launched a country-wide vegetarian campaign.

"It was a knee-jerk reaction. Farmers felt they were being judged unfairly for something [the effect of greenhouse gases] the scientific community does not unanimously agree upon.

“At the same time they have to produce more to meet growing demand while their profits are steadily shrinking.”

Despite a growing acceptance of vegetarianism abroad, Plagnol does not believe France, Europe’s biggest agricultural producer, is ready to change its food habits, and that eating meat “is deeply ingrained in our culture.”

Indeed, expatriate Canadian food writer Rosa Jackson has blogged about France as “the proud land of steak-frites and saucisson, andouillette and tête de veau” and even “the country where the pig is widely regarded as a vegetable”.

Changing attitudes?

In France, an estimated 2% of people are vegetarians, according to the only official study by the national statistics office, conducted ten years ago, as opposed to 5% in the UK.

Nevertheless the French Vegetarian Association, which has seen its member count double to 2,500 in the past 18 months, sees mindsets changing.

The association promotes its own meat-free-day while Tuesday is a vegetarian day in school canteens in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris.

“Until a few years ago, France was not at all a favourable environment for vegetarians,” spokeswoman Aurélia Greff told FRANCE 24, adding that she was not surprised by the reaction of French farmers to the Sodexo campaign.

“We were more disappointed by Sodexo’s backtracking,” she said. “In the context of sustainable development, eating less meat is much more efficient than for example turning off the tap while brushing your teeth.”

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