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“Made in France”, tricolor flag… How “French washing” invaded our shelves

“Made in France” sells, it’s no longer a secret.

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“Made in France”, tricolor flag… How “French washing” invaded our shelves

“Made in France” sells, it’s no longer a secret. You only have to see the number of references present on supermarket shelves and which display a tricolor flag to understand that it has even become a selling point. Driven by consumers' desire to buy more local and more ethical, some manufacturers no longer hesitate to subvert codes and maintain confusion to sell their goods, often produced outside France's borders. This is what we call “French washing”.

Guarantee of quality for some (47%), support for French producers for others (63%), several factors tend to explain the growth of this practice according to a survey carried out by OpinionWay in October 2023. On the customer side, Products marketed as French have their fans. A feeling that can be felt in the aisles of a supermarket in the 14th arrondissement of Paris. “When you have the choice between two products, and one of the two displays a French origin, I find it more reassuring to opt for the item with a clear origin,” confides Sylvie, in her fifties. Same feeling for Hervé, a consumer attentive to labels. “At times it’s not clear. There are products where the logo does not seem official,” he comments, intrigued by certain packaging. “It’s hard to know if it’s marketing or a real certification. I find that misleading.” And there is reason to wonder.

Several common elements make it possible to identify products that practice “French washing” on the shelves. Very often, the presence of a French flag or the use of the tricolors is a warning sign. But manufacturers also use clichés like a rooster, a vintage image, or a map of France to maintain confusion. Expressions such as “Made in France”, “Developed in France” or “Packaged in France” also maintain ambiguity for the consumer. In reality, only part of the production is carried out in France. Behind these pretty packaging, very often, if the product is conditioned and packaged in France, the ingredients are of foreign origin.

Camille Dorioz, Foodwatch campaigns director, notes that this practice is not new and fluctuates over time. “Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon on the shelves. We started working on it in 2018, it became a classic,” he confesses. He adds “It’s very disappointing for the customer who wants to buy French and make a strong move by opting for a national product, which is not.”

Also read: The return to favor of chicory, this “chti” drink that could make you give up coffee

Olivier Dauvers, specialist in mass distribution, also claims to be leading a fight for more transparency on this subject with the initiative

For the consumer association Foodwatch, this commercial practice is upsetting. “The companies that are at the limit on the subject are mostly French. They buy products abroad and highlight the French origin of their headquarters. The most telling example is Bjorg although she has improved her practices. Camille Dorioz advises: “If there’s any doubt with the packaging, it’s that it’s not French. You must put the product down for another one and be extra vigilant. The goal is for the consumer to have all the data to make a conscious choice.”

Within the cabinet of Olivia Grégoire, the Minister Delegate in charge of Business, Tourism and Consumption, the problem is taken very seriously. “There is reason to question the misleading nature of the French flags affixed to processed products. But today, in view of the regulations, manufacturers have the right to display this flag even if none of the ingredients were produced in France. It’s legal,” we are told. However, applying blue-white-red was supposed to be prohibited since the Egalim 2 law adopted in October 2021. This regulation was to cause professionals to incur 300,000 euros in fines and two years in prison. Except that... “the use of the French flag is permitted within the framework of European law”. Which means that article 12 of this law is not applied because it does not comply with the law of the 27. The decree was thus never published by the Élysée.

However, according to this source close to the minister, industrialists risk “name and shame”. Many Internet users have not hesitated to denounce the practices in recent weeks, keen to know what they are really buying in stores. But not sure that this is enough.

Camille Dorioz regrets the government's abandonment on the subject: “Foodwatch has worked hard to show the scams on the labels. We called for a stricter law which we had with Egalim 2. It was progress at the time.” After the passage of the law “many French symbols had disappeared from the shelves. However, with the agricultural crisis, I have the impression that abuses are reappearing.” Olivia Grégoire is currently trying to relaunch the debate on the subject. It will bring together agri-food players in mid-March to create a new indicator: the Origin Score. An approach similar to Nutri-score, based on volunteering. The Minister for Consumer Affairs also hopes to make it “compulsory and European” according to her advisors.

Also read: What is the Origin Score, what does the government want to implement on the shelves?

In the meantime, it is difficult for consumers to do their shopping in complete peace of mind. However, there are several official certifications and labels to help you see things more clearly. The Origine France Garantie label, presented in 2011, is the best known. It is awarded by the ProFrance association. To obtain it, companies must prove that “the place where the product takes on its essential characteristics is located in France” and that “at least 50% of the unit cost price is acquired in France”, indicates Bercy.

Better known to the general public, other names constitute a guarantee of confidence in the origin and manufacturing of products and are recognized by the State. The protected geographical indication (PGI) “identifies an agricultural product, raw or processed, whose quality, reputation or other characteristics are linked to its geographical origin”. The Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) “designates a product for which all stages of production are carried out according to recognized know-how in the same geographical area, which gives its characteristics to the product”, according to the government website.

In search of more fair communication, major brands have also launched solidarity private labels in recent months which not only provide product traceability but also remunerate the producer at the right price. Auchan, for example, has introduced more than thirty Auchan Solidaires products (cream, butter, milk, cold meats) onto its stalls. On the distributor's website, we can read that it is “the guarantee of quality, French origin, animal welfare and respect for the environment”. Leclerc, for his part, promises to support the French agricultural world with his Let’s support our farmers brand, which has more than twenty “100% made in France” references. Intermarché exploits the vein with its Merci range! described as “the standard bearer of French agricultural sectors”. A “positive approach” welcomes Olivier Dauvers. Certainly a drop in the ocean while waiting for “French washing” to truly disappear from the shelves…

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