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French charities ready to hand out horsemeat

Leading food aid charities in France have declared they would be ready to hand out tonnes of recalled ready meals containing horsemeat, saying it would be "scandalous" to waste such a huge quantity of food.

French charities ready to hand out horsemeat
Volunteers from the 'Restos du coeur' ('Restaurants with heart') food charity in Paris on November 26th, 2012. Photo: Patrick Kovarik

Those keeping track of the on-going, Europe-wide horsemeat scandal, might have wondered at some point or another, what is to become of all those recalled frozen dinners.

They may soon have an answer, as some of France’s leading charities have made it clear they would be prepared to comandeer the tonnes of recalled microwave meals containing horsemeat, so they can be distributed among their poverty-stricken beneficiaries.

So far, six French supermarkets have recalled, or are planning to recall, thousands of ready-made dishes found to contain horsemeat, despite being labelled as beef.

Not wishing to see tonnes of food go to waste, three food aid charities – Restos du Coeur (‘restaurants with heart’) Secours populaire (People rescue) and Banque Alimentaire (the food bank) – are interested in getting hold of the meals and re-distributing them among the poor, as long as they posed no health risk.

The three charities met last week to try to work out a plan of action.

"Above all, these cannot be thrown out. If the meals are safe, we will take them," a branch manager from Secours Populaire told Europe 1 radio.

Philippe Le Mescam, head of the Brittany branch of 'Restos du coeur' was more vociferous, telling French regional daily Ouest France that “it would be scandalous to destroy all these tonnes of food, if tests show that they don’t pose a health risk."

The meals would also have to be re-labelled before being handed out, as their packaging wrongly suggests they only contain beef.

The supermarkets have not yet given permission to hand over the meals.

A spokeswoman for Restos du Coeur told The Local on Monday that for the moment, the charity would not be accepting the meals, saying there were many health issues to be sorted out before they could be redistributed.

For his part, director of the French federation of food banks Maurice Lony told The Local on Monday, “Our goal is to fight waste. These products are now in storage, awaiting some sort of resolution. So if they can’t be sold, we could take them and distribute them to deprived people."

However, Lony pointed out that his organization would also need health tests to be performed before handing them out, as well as gauging the appetites of food-bank users around the country, a process which he says they have already started.

“In the north of France there’s more of a culture of eating horsemeat, so people in that region are saying ‘yes’ to the meals. But in the south-west, for example, our users would be less ready to take the products,” said Lony.

When asked whether he himself would eat one of the packaged meals in question, Lony replied “Yes, I wouldn’t mind that.”

Elsewhere in the horsemeat scandal on Monday France partially renewed the sanitary licence of a meat-processing firm that was suspended after it was accused of passing off 750 tonnes of horsemeat as beef and sparking a Europe-wide food scandal.

Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll told AFP that Spanghero would be allowed to resume its production of minced meat, sausages and ready-to-eat meals but would not be allowed to stock frozen meats.

Spanghero's licence to handle meat was suspended last Thursday after the French government said an initial inquiry showed it had knowingly sold 750 tonnes of horsemeat mislabelled as beef over a period of six months.

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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!

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