Former French President Charles de Gaulle once asked how anyone could govern a country with 258 kinds of cheese — and that task has now only gotten harder in the coronavirus crisis as the nation’s top fromagers are crying out for help.
French cheesemakers are warning that restaurant closures and a downturn in international trade have caused a 60 percent slump in sales of cheeses from Camembert to Roquefort.
This could leave a 5,000-ton cheese surplus to rot, according to Michel Lacoste, president of the National Council of Appellations of Dairy Origin (CNAOL), a group for producers of the 45 French cheeses that are protected by the EU’s lucrative geographical indication label.
Cheesemakers are looking at desperate measures, ranging from destroying tons of luxury stock to derogations from the strict rules normally required to win a protected gourmet label.
“There are producers experiencing drops in prices that are catastrophic,” Lacoste said.
“Today it’s the France of 1,000 cheeses that is being threatened,” he said, adding that smaller operators were economically fragile.
The coronavirus, which broke out during the seasonal peak of European milk production, has rocked the industry, as the drop in demand for high-value cheeses led farmers to create a glut of more storable dairy products such as butter and milk powder.
“That in turn creates a temporary overshoot in production … and puts pressure on the overall market,” a European Commission official told journalists Monday, as he described a “market shock situation” for dairy.
After pressure from EU governments, the European Commission decided to pay French farmers to temporarily store over 18,000 tons of cheese, in order to keep it off the market during the crisis. Brussels also announced private storage aid for butter and skimmed milk powder.
But instead, some farmers want the EU to pay them to reduce production, arguing that stockpiling cheese will only delay the oversupply problem, until it floods back onto the market, keeping prices low. The European Milk Board lobby, whose president, Erwin Schöpges, described the EU’s storage measures as “wrong,” will coordinate protests in eight EU countries, including France and Belgium, by dumping milk powder in fields Thursday.
Sylvain Louis, a dairy farmer in the Ardennes, will be one of roughly 20 farmers around France holding isolated protests on his own land, in line with the country’s lockdown rules.
“We have innumerable examples that the storage of milk doesn’t work,” he said, adding that he’ll be spreading milk powder across one of his fields with his wife and son.
“Brussels must provide our producers with more protections,” said Lacoste, adding that French cheesemakers have already lost €157 million in turnover since the coronavirus lockdown started.
The CNAOL launched a campaign on Monday to make sure a current 1,000-ton backlog of high-quality cheese does not end up going off.
Some 1,000 tons have already been destroyed, given away or melted down to be sold as lower-quality cheese, Lacoste said.
That is why French cheesemakers are not content to simply wait for more help from Brussels.
Producers of French cheeses such as Emmental, Selles-sur-Cher and Fourme de Montbrison have obtained government derogations to temporarily tweak their hallowed production methods to conserve their cheeses for longer.
And farmers representing around half the annual 230,000-ton EU-protected cheese output have asked the French government to allow them to trigger a clause in the Common Agricultural Policy in order to reduce production and fit the scale of the demand, according to Mathilde Chareyron, EU representative for the umbrella geographical indications NGO oriGIn.
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