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Striking French workers blockade world’s largest Nutella factory

A plant in northern France that makes a quarter of the world's Nutella has been blockaded for a week by workers striking for more pay, unions said on Monday, in troubling news for consumers of the cocoa and hazelnut spread.

Striking French workers blockade world's largest Nutella factory
A previous protest at the Nutella factory. Photo: AFP

The stoppage has hit the Villers-Ecalles factory of privately-owned Italian confectionery giant Ferrero, which normally churns out 600,000 jars per day, making it the biggest Nutella producer in the world.

Some 160 employees have been on strike since Monday last week, said Fabrice Canchel of the Force Ouvriere (FO) union.

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You might want to start stockpiling Nutella in case supplies run short. Photo: AFP

“No lorry has gone in or out of the site since then,” he said.

Kinder Bueno production had also ceased for almost a week, Canchel said, while of the four Nutella production lines, just one was working and that only at 20 percent capacity.

“The raw materials are starting to run short,” he said.

Workers want a 4.5 percent pay rise as well as a €900 bonus. Management has offered only a 0.4 percent rise.

Ferrero, a family firm known for secrecy and which also produces Ferrero Rocher and Kinder Surprise, declined to comment.

But in an internal message seen by AFP, management said the “blocking of access to the site is totally illegal” and threatened to implement a judicial order to ensure access.

“This is an unacceptable violation of the right to strike,” said Canchel.

Nutella production has faced challenges in recent years, partly due to poor hazelnut crops in Turkey, the world's biggest exporter of the nut.

The Villers-Ecalles site closed for five days in February due to a quality defect, while a French minister in 2015 told people not to eat the spread as it contributed to deforestation and climate change.

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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.

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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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