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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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!