Want to Help Europe Beat the Virus? Gorge on French Cheese and Belgian Fries
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The Continent’s most expensive meat cuts, fancy cheese and costly wine have few takers.
By Judith Evans and Emiko Terazono
Belgians have been asked to eat more fries, the British are being urged to tuck into steak and the French have been pressed to increase their cheese intake. The unusual pleas come not because people need comfort food as the coronavirus pandemic rages, but to help clear a glut of produce languishing in storage as the crisis shuts down restaurants, hotels and workplace eateries across Europe.
With customers in lockdown, the Continent’s farmers and food producers are trying to persuade people to increase consumption of their products at home. In Belgium, the world’s largest exporter of frozen fries, trade association Belgapom, is urging people to eat an extra portion a week to reduce its 750,000-metric-ton potato surplus.
“The frite is an intangible cultural heritage. It is a tradition that [Belgians] have frites once a week. We are asking people to increase that moment of joy an extra time in the week,” says Belgapom Secretary-General Romain Cools.
European farmers are facing the return of butter and beef mountains and wine and milk lakes — last seen during the period of overproduction in the early 1980s — as the coronavirus crisis devastates demand. Across the Continent, display cases are stacked with cheese that cannot be sold; cellars overflow with wine; dairy farmers are pouring surplus milk down the drain; and vegetables and herbs are being dumped.
Beef production cannot be turned on and off like a tap.
National Beef Association
European winemakers are facing an estimated 35 percent fall in sales volumes and a 50 percent decline in value during the lockdown, according to the CEEV, the region’s trade body.
In Italy alone, the country’s cellars are holding 54 million hectoliters of wine, equivalent to more than 7 billion bottles or a year’s worth of sales, according to Dino Scanavino, president of the Italian farmers’ confederation Cia-Agricoltori Italiani.
In the United Kingdom, at least 2 million liters of milk of the 35 million a day produced is surplus and is either being converted to more versatile and easily stored powder or thrown away, says Peter Alvis, chairman of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF).
Meanwhile, the meat industry is building up a surplus of the more expensive cuts normally used by restaurants. In the U.K., demand for minced beef has increased, but the sector has problems with “carcass balance,” according to the National Beef Association, with the pricier cuts that make the whole animal profitable remaining unsold.
Like the Belgians, the U.K. industry is trying to shift consumption to home cooks, with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, which represents farmers, launching a #steaknight social media campaign, enlisting chefs and growers to share their recipes and tips.
The sudden disappearance of demand from the food service sector is adding to the difficulties facing Europe’s farmers, who are already struggling with labor shortages that threaten to hit the next harvest even as they are hampering processing of existing produce, adding to the glut.
The food and agricultural sectors are calling for government and European Union support. The wine industry, including the CEEV and national associations, have asked for aid from the bloc to help producers distill the surplus into pure alcohol that could be used in sanitizers.
Scanavino is lobbying Rome and Brussels for aid for Italy’s agricultural sector, and has launched a #noinonciarrendiamo — “no surrender” — campaign over the past few weeks to show that farmers “won’t give up,” he says.
In France, the government has temporarily relaxed some of the strict rules for “Appellation d’Origine Protégée” (AOP), or “Protected Designation of Origin,” cheeses to give producers more flexibility, for example, over how long milk can be stored before it must be used and how cheese is aged and kept. The rules have been eased for 15 of the more than 40 AOP cheeses, according to the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité, a state institution that governs the production of designated cheese and wines.
Meanwhile, the industry has launched a #fromagisson campaign, calling on the French to do “what you can for cheese.”
In the U.K., the RABDF and the National Farmers Union have called for targeted government support to enable dairy farmers to survive and so safeguard supplies once the pandemic is over. The current surplus will “give the industry a hangover for a long period of time,” says Alvis.
The European Commission has so far announced two packages to support the EU’s agriculture sector, with measures including suspension of competition rules and a pledge of $88 million to help farmers store products for two to six months to help rebalance the markets.
But finding storage space is increasingly difficult. The U.K.’s industry group for cold storage warehousing is warning that the country will run out within days as warehouses are filled with perishable food stocks.
Mike McClendon, president of international operations for Lineage Logistics, the world’s largest cold storage supplier, says that approximately 95 percent of chilled and frozen storage in Europe is full. “We’re seeing a large demand for [storage of] potatoes, ice cream, beef, chicken and pork,” he says.
For farmers who have tended fields and livestock for years, the overnight disappearance of markets and the pileup of produce has been devastating. Most agricultural operations could not adjust to sudden demand fluctuations, unlike industrial production lines, say industry bodies.
“The meat we are consuming this week started production three years ago or more,” says the National Beef Association. “Beef production cannot be turned on and off like a tap.”
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