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French food producers left furious as artisan meats and cheeses labelled unhealthy

EU proposals to make traffic light food labelling compulsory have stirred fury from artisan French food producers, who say the health and nutrition scores unfairly brand traditional foodstuffs like Roquefort cheese as unhealthy.

French food producers left furious as artisan meats and cheeses labelled unhealthy
Many French cheeses are made to centuries-old protected recipes. Photo: Pascal Pavani/AFP

France already has a traffic light food labelling system called Nutri Score which is used in supermarkets, but the EU proposal is to make it compulsory for all food sale points.

The problem for producers of some of France’s best-loved food products like cheese and sausage is that these tend to get poor health ratings based on their high fat and salt content – something the artisan producers say is unfair as their products are made to traditional recipes that cannot be changed.

“We have inherited an ancestral recipe that we cannot change, it’s impossible to make efforts on the nutritive value of Roquefort,” said general secretary of the general confederation of Roquefort Sébastien Vignette.

“Our cheese has qualities, it is a source of calcium, but the Nutri-Score doesn’t take that into account but counts fatty acids.”

The black pigs – cochons noirs de Bigorre – which make a highly prized southern ham. Photo by MEHDI FEDOUACH / AFP

Producers in the southern region of Occitanie – which produces the prestigious porc noir de Bigorre  (also known as L’Or gras or fatty gold) and much-loved French AOP cheeses Roquefort and Pélardon – are calling for an exemption for traditional produce. 

Roquefort usually gets an E – the worst grade – on the Nutri Score system due to its high salt content while Pélardon usually gets a D.

But producers say their food – which contains no additives – is actually much better for your health than ultra-processed foods which score better on the system.

“Nutri-Score was created to encourage industrial producers to improve the nutritional value of their processed products, which is good for a chocolate bar, sodas or prepared food,” director of the regional Institut of food quality of Occitanie (Irqualim) Pierre Ginebre told Le Parisien

“But the calculation is not suited for traditional food products. An organic fruit juice will get a C whereas a diet soda with sweeteners will get a B,” he said.  

Other fatty food will also get a low score although they barely contain additives. For instance, a jambon porc noir de Bigorre is made with pork, salt, pepper and nothing else. 

“It’s a recipe full of history, but that will be discredited with this labelling, which consumers rely on.”  

Fearing that consumers might give the cold shoulder to these products because of their high amount of sugar or fat, the Irqualim has asked the European Commission to exempt them from this labelling.

The general confederation of Roquefort has also written to the candidates running for the regional elections in June to defend their cause and their traditional methods. 

The Nutri-Score system was created by Santé Publique France, the French public health agency and implemented by the French government in March 2017.

It was created to help consumers make more transparent and healthier purchasing decisions and since January 1st 2021, this labelling is mandatory on every food advertisement.

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FOOD & DRINK

Does Beaujolais Nouveau wine deserve its bad reputation?

Beaujolais Nouveau wine suffers from a number of negative stereotypes - but are these rumours more fiction than fact?

Does Beaujolais Nouveau wine deserve its bad reputation?

Each year – on the third Thursday of November – people across the world celebrate one thing, and it is not Thanksgiving. It is the release of the Beaujolais Nouveau, a French wine coming from the east of France, south of the wine growing region of Burgundy.

The release of the Beaujolais Nouveau vintage brings with it lots of celebration – four days of it in the Beaujolais region itself. The vintage is then shipped far and wide for people to consume, more often than not at a very affordable price of just a few euros. 

READ MORE: Beaujolais Nouveau: 13 things you need to know about France’s famous wine

Unfortunately, however, the light, red wine also has suffered from a negative reputation. Critics (or perhaps just those who have drunk too many glasses) say it gives you a hangover, tastes terrible (apparently similar to bananas to some), and above all that it is low-quality.

But to Rod Phillips, wine expert and author of “French Wine: A History”, Beaujolais Nouveau is “young, fruity, bright, cheerful.” 

Phillips went on to say that it is “not a wine to discuss or contemplate,” but “that doesn’t make it bad wine. It’s different from structured, more subtle and nuanced wines.”

For Caroline Conner, sommelier and head of Lyon Wine Tastings, Beaujolais Nouveau is “really fun” and highly encourages people to give the wine a chance, particularly from local producers. 

You can hear Caroline Conner discuss Beaujolais Nouveau in the new episode of the Talking France podcast. Download here or listen below.

Conner explained the stories of Beaujolais Nouveau wine causing hangovers has nothing to do with the way the wine is made, or even how quickly it is produced –  using grapes that were harvested just a few months before being bottled. 

“It’s not about the technique, it’s because most of it is mass produced. Any mass produced wine is probably going to give you a hangover,” the sommelier explained. 

Of course hangovers also depend on how much you drink – of any wine.

According to Rod Phillips, the stereotype that Beaujolais wine is of poor quality stretches back hundreds of years.

“The region had a setback in the Middle Ages and took a long time to recover,” explained Phillips.

In 1395, the Duke of Burgundy issued an edict – grapes from the Gamay vine were “injurious to the human creature” and wine that came from them had “terrible bitterness.” He is even thought to have said that the vine itself was an “evil and disloyal plant.”

According to Phillips, this decree was in the Duke’s interest: “He was protecting pinot noir, which was used for Burgundy’s already-famous wines.

More and more producers were growing Gamay because it had a higher yield, so made more and cheaper wine. They appealed to the Duke to ban Gamay and he obliged in terms that produced an enduring belief that Gamay was an inferior wine.”

This impacted Beaujolais wine because it is produced from that same “disloyal plant” – the Gamay grape. It was not until after the second World War that Beaujolais red wine grew in popularity outside of eastern France.

In the 1970s and 80s, the wine had a surge in popularity, with the start of the Beaujolais Nouveau phenomenon, and the mass production of the wine to be cheaply sent across the world. 

Conner described Beaujolais Nouveau as a “big party” at that time, with celebrations from London to Japan. While it has decreased in popularity in recent years, the third Thursday of November remains an important date in the French calendar.

What about the other Beaujolais wines?

Both wine experts also pointed to the fact that Beaujolais Nouveau is not the only wine to come out of the region. 

“There are a lots of different tiers of quality,” said Conner, adding that the Nouveau only accounts for about 20 percent of production. “The rest of Beaujolais wine is quite different.”

Phillips echoed these sentiments, noting an improvement in quality for other “Beaujolais Crus.”

“More recently people have discovered the 10 Beaujolais Crus (Morgon, Chénas, Brouilly, etc.) which are a real step up in quality,” he said. “There’s a sense in which Beaujolais Nouveau was a drag on the high quality wines of the region because it was associated with inexpensive, easy-drinking wines.”

And as for Beaujolais Nouveau itself, “it’s not all cheap and mass produced,” according to Conner.

If you really want to enjoy a good Beaujolais Nouveau, the sommelier recommends going “to a good caviste or a good restaurant” and drinking wine that was made by a “small producer.”

How much should you spend to get a really good bottle? Conner suggests 20 euros believing you’ll get far more value for money if you spend that amount on a Beaujolais rather than a Burgundy – which you pay a premium on because of its famous name

“You’ll find some excellent value,” she promised.

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