What lies ahead for France’s 100,000 foie gras workers?

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When the men in medical overalls finished loading her 1,200 ducks to take them off for slaughter one windy afternoon in February, the owner of the premises moved a few steps away to hide her tears. Corinne Potier, an open-air duck breeder and producer of foie gras in the south-western French department of Landes, was watching months of work being taken away from her.

Born and bred in the region that supplies 80 per cent of France’s foie gras, this daughter and granddaughter of local farmers doesn’t know if she will ever get back on her feet again. “The truth is we are not even certain that our ducks were ill,” says Corinne’s husband Xavier Potier, who jointly owns the Parlarriou farm with her.

“They are being killed as a preventive measure and unfortunately, at this rate, all the ducks in the region will be killed within the next two weeks. The situation is going to get very difficult for everyone, particularly the small producers,” he says.

Dozens of supporters have come along to line the road. They know they will all be affected by the legislation that recently came into effect under pressure from industry leaders: duck breeders in the areas affected by bird flu have to have them put down to nip the epidemic in the bud – even if they work in a small circuit and don’t transport their animals anywhere. This radical plan to wipe out most of the bird population has provoked incomprehension and anger.

Taylorism blamed

Behind one of the flagship products of French gastronomy, criticised by some for its force feeding, are a large number of small farmers, cooperative employees and labourers who are now in difficulty.

The second consecutive round of bird flu means that a lot of people in the sector are facing partial unemployment or the risk of bankruptcy, while in time it could endanger the local knowledge and craftsmanship of the family farmers who are being brought to their knees.

They are blaming a structural crisis: by favouring more intense breeding and the Taylorisation of production [a scientific system which creates efficiency in production management], the policy driven by the big corporations who have dominated the industry for 20 years has contributed to propagating the virus since 2015, as has been the case for other diseases in Europe.

“They have made a very serious mistake,” says Christophe Mesplède, a representative of the family farmers trade union confederation, the Modef. “Squeezing in more and more ducks to produce a record amount of foie gras in 2015, with stocks going up to 7,000 tonnes...is that right?”

He continues: “The industrialists wanted to produce foie gras the way we produce pigs. But foie gras was never meant to become a staple food. If we carry on like this we are heading straight for the wall.”

As industrial production units steadily replace family farms, today the ducks are transported by lorry several times in their lives before ending up on the slaughter line in a factory. These repeated journeys, which trigger stress and propagate disease, are at the core of the debate around the crisis.

Reorganisation of the industry

After the 2015-2016 outbreak of bird flu cost the French government over €200 million, the agriculture minister, Stéphane Le Foll, on a visit to Landes, recognised the need to reorganise the industry to protect, indirectly, over 100,000 jobs for workers such as Fanny Salette.

“You have to work at the pace of the production line, not your own pace. It is something you have to accept. When you want to work, you have to be on the same page as everyone else,” explains Salette, who works at the abattoir in Chalosse and used to work as a feeder for private employers.

Since the crisis began, every night she kills the new arrivals taken away as part of the depopulation programme. Most of the ducks she sees on the production line are healthy, but they are being slaughtered as a precaution, in line with the new legislation.

“It is very sad to have to kill animals like that, for no reason,” says the grandmother of three, over a coffee, after a few hours sleep. “We never used to do that.”

She has always worked in the foie gras industry, ever since she was 14.

“The factories here created a lot of jobs, it’s good for people. But the work isn’t the same any more. Before, we took our time, but now it’s different, you have to work quickly. We work with living creatures, and there is a tendency to forget that.”

She worries about the threat of unemployment hanging over all the workers, now that a cordon sanitaire around the region until May has just been announced. Her daughter also works at the abattoir and her husband retired just a month ago. Michel Salette went to work in the factory on the day it opened, 25 years ago, and has seen how the industry has changed.

“At the end of the 1980s, a lot of independent farmers still slaughtered their ducks on their own premises and sold them directly to the customer. Then the factories began to open and a lot of them stopped. The young don’t want to continue the work on the farms, it is easier to do what we are doing now.”

But the bird flu epidemic has shaken up the whole industry. “It is all the workers talk about. We are worried that all the small producers will disappear. And the factory won’t be able to continue as before either. Everyone is affected.”

Compensation

As it did last year, the French government will have to allocate public funds to compensate the producers for the damages caused and loss of income. Unemployment insurance will cover the interruption in the workers’ employment.

Some advocate vaccination as an alternative. But to do that would mean being banned from exporting abroad. Exports, developed in the mid-2000s, bring in substantial revenue each year, and allow France to keep its signature on a product on which it can claim to be the expert.

The government is therefore opposed to researching a vaccine, and the industry as a whole has not reached agreement on where responsibility for the crisis lies, nor on the best responses to it. Yet behind the bird flu crisis lies a multiplication of animal pandemics around the world.

The intensification of agriculture and the multiplication of trade are being held responsible everywhere, including south-west France where bird flu is expected to return next year. The fate of the duck workers in 2017 and beyond will depend heavily on the handling of this new situation, which looks as if it is here to stay.

This story has been translated from French.