Mozzarella outsells camembert in France for the first time

Since the beginning of the year, more of the Italian cheese mozzarella has been sold in France than camembert, leaving some in the food industry concerned about the future of traditional French products.

The French consumed 33,000 tonnes of  mozzarella in the first 8 months of the year.
The French consumed 33,000 tonnes of mozzarella in the first 8 months of the year. Photo: ROBERTO SALOMONE / AFP.

“For the first time in France, camembert sales figures, down 3 percent year on year, have fallen below those of mozzarella, which grow 5 percent annually,” Fabrice Collier, president of the Syndicat normand des fabricants de camemberts (SNFC) told Le Figaro on Wednesday.

“From the beginning of the year up until September 11th, we sold 29,230 tonnes of camembert in France, compared to 33,170 tonnes of mozzarella.”

Traditions under threat?

“In the 1980s, we were producing 180,000 tonnes of camembert, part of which was exported – that’s twice as much as today,” Collier added.

While some have interpreted the figures as a ploy to boost the sales of camembert, others are worried about what this means for the future of French cooking.

David Gallienne, a chef from Normandy, the home of traditional camembert, who won Season 11 of the French cooking contest Top Chef, told Le Parisien the news was “a sign we’re losing our traditions”.

“We produce a cheese that stinks! Even if not everyone can eat it, we need to defend our products,” Michel Sarran, who holds two Michelin stars and was formerly a judge on Top Chef, told the newspaper, adding that mozzarella is a product he “struggles to consider cheese”.

The pandemic played a role

The rise of mozzarella reflects the popularity of Italian food in general in France. The figures do not only take into account the cheese that French people pick up directly at the supermarket, but also that which appears in meals sold in shops and in restaurants. Here of course mozzarella has one big advantage: the pizza.

Indeed, while mozzarella is commonly used for cooking, camembert is usually consumed as part of a cheese board, often in a restaurant. Except restaurants were closed for the first four and a half months of this year.

“All the platter cheeses, the AOPs [Protected designation of origin] we find in restaurants, suffered during this period,” sociologist Jean-Pierre Poulain told Le Parisien. “The only ones who continued doing business were those who delivered: pizzerias, which used mozzarella.”

According to a 2019 study from Harris interactive for Groupon, 94 percent of French people enjoy Italian food, making it the nation’s favourite foreign cuisine. Ever the patriots, however, 97 percent said they liked French cooking, so maybe the fears are overblown.

And mozzarella may have overtaken camembert, but it’s not the most popular cheese in France. According to a report from FranceAgriMer, that title belongs to emmental – people in France bought 164,506 tonnes of the cheese in 2020.

Although maybe there is another reason for camembert’s fall in popularity. As the tweet below suggests, “It’s normal, people have had enough of the President” (Président is a popular brand of cheese, including camembert, in France).

But it’s not just added competition the SNFC is concerned about. “With the banning of any reference to Normandy for pasteurised camembert, we are particularly worried about the future of the industry,” Collier said.

Indeed, since January 1st, 2021, the large industrial groups are no longer able to sell cheese labelled “made in Normandy”, judged too similar to the AOP Camembert de Normandie label that’s reserved for traditional producers of unpasteurized cheese.

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ANALYSIS: Is France food self-sufficient?

The war in Ukraine and, in the longer term, climate change have prompted concerns about supplies and cost of food - but would France be able to produce enough to feed its population if necessary?

ANALYSIS: Is France food self-sufficient?

As food prices rise in France and elsewhere, questions over the country’s food security and self-sufficiency have been asked.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – a major exporter of wheat, corn and oil – has affected global markets, with prices for such products increasing dramatically, while sanctions imposed on Russia – the world’s biggest wheat exporter – following the invasion are also hitting prices. 

It has also prompted questions as to whether, if necessary, France could feed the 67 million people who call it home, while both the European Commission and the G7 set out plans to safeguard global food security. 

Unlike other countries, such as Switzerland, France does not have a formal policy of self sufficiency for food – though it does have a policy for energy security.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear power?

“There is no risk of shortage in France because our agriculture and our agri-food sectors are strong and sovereign,” former agriculture minister Julien Denormandie said on March 16th, while acknowledging that the industry faced a number of challenges.

He pointed to the economic and social resilience plan published by ex-Prime Minister Jean Castex to protect the French economy from the the effects of the Ukraine war, and which included measures to, “secure our producers, our processors as well as our agricultural and food production from 2022.”

Food prices, as predicted, have risen, both for imports and for domestically produced goods as farmers are hit by rising costs for fuel. The agriculture industry has been among the sectors consulted and farmers have been singled out for support, in order that they will be able to minimise price rises to consumers.

In April 2020, at the height of the Covid pandemic, it was estimated that France imports about 20 percent of its food.

But France – a food exporter – could feed its entire population, according to a report by the think tank Utopies, published in April. There’s a reason the country has been referred to as the ‘bread basket of Europe’.

The study found that France currently meets 60 percent of its own food needs, but has the potential to become self-sufficient. The report said that the 26 percent of food products currently grown in France for export or incorporation into processed food could be used to cover 98 percent of France’s domestic needs, the report said.

Food processing in France, of which some 24 percent is currently exported, could cover 114 percent of the country’s needs in that sector, it added.

Of course food ‘needs’ don’t include luxury imported items like exotic fruits, chocolate and coffee, so diets would see a change in a completely self-sufficient France.

More recently, drought has also prompted short-term concerns, with French farmers worried about their harvests this year. 

France is the EU’s biggest wheat exporter, and one of the top five in the world. But hopes that French farmers would be able to offset at least some of the shortfall in the world’s supply of grain following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been hit by the record low rainfall so far this year, which have prompted warnings of a large drop in yields.

ALSO READ ‘No region has been spared’: Why the dry weather in France is causing concern

The forecast is for a smaller than usual French wheat harvest this year. With wheat-producing states in the US such as Kansas and Oklahoma also suffering in drought conditions, a poor harvest in France this year could be particularly significant – and could lead to wheat prices rising even higher in the short term.

At the height of the pandemic, president of the Fédération nationale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles (FNSEA) Christiane Lambert told Les Echos that there were two key pillars to ensuring food security and independence in France – the ability to produce and the ability to store. 

“No one bought French flour anymore because foreign flour was cheaper,” Lambert said. “So we produced less. But with the coronavirus crisis, it was necessary to respond to demand and therefore relaunch the production lines by running them day and night to avoid shortages.”

French agriculture was able to meet the challenge then. “We have in France a complete ecosystem which allows us to control all the links in the food chain … It must be preserved if we want to be sovereign over our food,” Lambert added.

But there would need to be a change in philosophy about food, according to Les Republicains’ senator Laurent Duplomb.

In France, “entry-level” agricultural products are mainly imported, since authorities have insisted on reorienting domestic production towards quality over quantity.

“We must also stop focusing on high-end agriculture because food sovereignty means being able to produce for everyone,” Duplomb said back in 2020. 

“The risk in a few years is to have two French consumers. The first will have the means to buy top-of-the-range French products, the second will be condemned to consume only imported products since France will no longer produce them.”