food / travel

In France, meat eaters strike back

Confronted to rising criticism of the shoddy practices and environmental damage of the meat industry, beef lovers are organizing themselves to defend their beliefs.

In France, meat eaters strike back
Elodie Lepage

PARIS - "I love bidoche!" is a slogan -- using a slang term for meat -- that can be an invitation to pleasure, or a cheeky provocation to radical vegetarians. It is also the name of a new pro-meat movement launched last week at the Maison de l'Aubrac, one of the beef-dedicated temples of the French capital.

The movement's instigator is Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec, a rising star among butchers. The fierce attacks to which carnivores worldwide have been subjected recently have become unbearable, says this 43-year-old French culinary artisan.

"Enough is enough," Le Bourdonnec exclaims in his little butcher shop in the Asnières suburb of Paris. "Being against beef-eating in France doesn't make any sense. Being against pork or poultry, that's ok, because these animals are raised on an industrial scale in absolutely appalling conditions. But beef is a different story."

Le Bourdonnec says France has none of the intensive beef farms that Jonathan Safran Foer describes in his 2009 bestseller ‘Eating Animals'. "This kind of breeding can only be used for fast growing cows, which our cows are not. So the issues Safran Foer speaks about are specific to the Unites States, not France."

In his book, the young American writer describes in crude detail the feed lots where animals are fattened with the help of antibiotics. In France, the book has helped the cause of vegetarians and animal rights activists. It is more and more common to see dinner guests unapologetically refusing to touch their host's roast beef. Even the once proudest carnivores are now starting to feel guilty in front of their steak. In "Confessions of a Meat Eater" French jurist and author Marcela Iacub makes a public apology for her past carnivorous habits.

Should all meat-eaters feel ashamed? "Definitely not!" says anthropologist Genevière Cazes-Valette. The whole controversy surrounding meat "is a lot ofnoise that has nothing to do with the attitude French people actually have towards meat. Figures show that the French still gobble up large quantities of meat: only 1.2 to 1.3% of the population are vegetarians. And our country has the highest meat consumption rate in Europe," she says.

But the truth is that meat consumption has been steadily dropping over the years. According to the French Meat Information Center, the figure has dropped from 52 to 46 grams a day per person, in the period between 2004 and 2007, or three to four portions each week. "Those who are against eating meat are today's puritans," says philosopher Dominique Lestel, author of an essay called "In Defense of the Carnivore." "They represent a percentage of individuals that, in any kind of society, feel invested with the mission to have an ethical discourse. They might as well build their stance over sex, but the meat issue is today seen as less conservative, less out-moded."

Maryline Patou-Mathis from the National Centre for Scientific Research finds the no-meat stance particularly annoying: "We are not elves, for Heaven's sake!" she says. "People who refuse to eat meat are simply denying their animal side. They are forgetting that humans are omnivorous and that our metabolism is perfectly fit to assimilate meat."

But if meat eaters are less and less willing to put up with criticism, they are also showing a certain amount of support to their adversaries' claims. "Vegetarians do raise up two very real questions, about the damage done to the environment and industrial stockbreeding," Dominique Lestel admits.

Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec, the Parisian butcher, agrees: "Junk meat versus ethical meat, that is the real issue!" This Don Quixote of meat says that his "I love meat" operation is aimed at convincing stockbreeders to feed their animals on grass, and butchers to buy only these products, despite the higher costs.

Le Bourdonnec's ideal model? It surprisingly comes from the United States, where the neo butchers have gone back to ancient methods. Close to the locavore and Slow Food movements, and obsessed about ethical, good food, these young butchers have simply sent their cows back to the prairies. Their animals are happily grazing the grass in Maine. And consumers can already taste their delicious meat.

In France, certain breeders such as Christian Valette are also pampering their animals. His 120 Aubrac cows are raised on hay and press cakes based on linseed, rich in omega-3. The luckiest can even unwind during sessions of Thalasso therapy, with lots of spraying and brushing. But make no mistake, the goal is still to make them into tastier meat!

Photo - Ph. Grillot

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