Food and politics - never the twain shall meet?

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Related tags: Ice cream, United states, Chardonnay, Belgium

Food and drink products have often been at the heart of trade
disputes between countries, but in recent years they have become
not the reason for these disputes but rather weapons wielded by
politicians. The US call for a boycott on French goods is an
excellent example - but the question is not so clear cut. Will the
French really suffer from the renaming of 'French' fries? And is
such jingoistic sentiment just another marketing opportunity or an
extension of protectionist practices, asks Chris Jones?

Europe and the US have often been on opposing sides in trade disputes involving food and drink products. The Bacardi/Pernod Ricard rum dispute springs to mind, as do the huge import tariffs imposed by the US on many European products - including luxury foodstuffs such as foie gras - after Brussels banned imports of US beef because of that country's use of growth hormones.

But the current disagreement between the US - along with, it has to be said, some of its European allies, most notably the UK and Spain - and other European nations such as France, Germany and Russia over intervention in Iraq has nothing to do with food - but it is food companies which are set to suffer as a result.

Pro-war supporters in the US have called for a boycott of French food products after France said it would not support the US line on Iraq, and a recent survey by US analyst Philip Lempert - also known as the Supermarket Guru - shows that many Americans are happy to follow the call.

"Choosing what to buy and not buy can be a legitimate form of political protest,"​ Lempert quite rightly points out (though why Americans should want to protest against France when the real problem is in Iraq is of course hard to see) and continues: "For years consumers didn't buy certain types of grapes to protest the treatment of migrant workers in California. It's very American for political disputes to carry into trade goods."

Lempert's poll was created to gauge US consumer response toward France, which is leading the opposition against using military force to disarm Iraq. France is the United States' oldest ally - mainly because both countries' history is dominated by antagonism towards the British, now the strongest US ally, of course - and the two do some $50 billion in annual trade. But this also makes trade boycotts a very powerful weapon in political conflicts, no matter how unfounded.

As a result of the conflict between the countries, signs have been popping up in US liquor and wine stores urging consumers to buy American or Australian wines, and bypass vintages from France, Lempert said. There have been no official calls for a boycott, but White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the Bush administration had absolutely no problem with Americans boycotting French products - and that, it seems, is what they are doing.

According to the poll, 71 per cent of the respondents agree that political disagreements should carry over to the free trade arena compared to 29 per cent who oppose it. In addition, 73 per cent believe US consumers should boycott French-made products compared to 27 per cent who do not support a boycott.

Going to extremes?

Reflecting the absurd depths to which this 'dispute' has dropped, restaurants across the US have renamed French fries 'freedom fries' - something which is unlikely to worry most French people as French fries have about as much to do with France as pumpkin pie (they were 'invented' in Belgium). McCain, the world's largest producer of French fries, is in fact Canadian.

Rather more serious for French companies is the decision by many US restaurants to dump expensive French wines and Champagne, while one independent grocery retailer in Chicago has pulled everything French off its shelves. Should the boycott continue for any length of time then France's wine industry could suffer, although the only people likely to suffer in the short term are the US importers of French wines left with unsold stocks.

This of course underlines the difficulty of such boycotts, because in many cases food and drink products are distributed under licence by local companies, who are more likely to suffer immediate losses than their French suppliers. Evian, for example, produced by Danone, is distributed in the US by Coca-Cola, while the company's dairy products are sold under the rather more American sounding Dannon name.

For some companies, the current falling out is seen as much as a marketing opportunity as anything else. The Star Spangled Ice Cream Company​, for example, yesterday announced that it was to launch a new flavour of its super premium ice cream - I Hate the French Vanilla.

Targeted as much at the 'loony lefties' behind the Ben & Jerry's ice cream brand as the French themselves, the ice cream is being marketed as allowing 'conservative' Americans (with the implicit suggestion that these are the only kind worth worrying about) a product which offers the quality of Ben & Jerry's without the 'guilt' entailed by choosing that brand.

A portion of every purchase of Star Spangled Ice Cream goes to charities that support "the great men and women in America's Armed Forces"​, the company jingoistically proclaims, adding that it provides an alternative to so-called "wacko liberal political causes"​ such as world peace (!). The brand will probably sell extremely well - though not in France, one suspects.

France just as bad

Of course, the US is not alone in the creation of such products, and France has been far from blameless when it comes to using US brands to make political points. High profile eco-warrior José Bové was imprisoned recently for vandalising a McDonald's outlet, and the uproar surrounding Gallo's attempts to buy vineyards in the Languedoc region, while not exactly supported by the Paris government, is indicative of the depth of feeling about so-called US imperialism.

The most fervent anti-American brand at the moment, however, has to be Mecca Cola - another French invention - and its UK clone, Qibla Cola, both said to offer Muslim consumers an alternative to Coca-Cola (while conveniently packaging their products in packs almost identical to that of the US brand and thus benefiting from its goodwill).

Both sides, it seems, are as bad as each other, and because food and drink products represent such big business - and a huge share of most consumers' expenditure on either side of the Atlantic - they are increasingly being used to make political points. The question is whether the cracks in the relationships between the western powers can be papered over once the now seemingly inevitable war in Iraq is over.

Will the US troops be celebrating their 'victory' with Californian sparkling wine? Possibly - but they would probably prefer Champagne.

Related topics: Market Trends

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