French gourmands face lean times

The hidden scandals of the beef brotherhood

Translated: French business monthly, CAPITAL
July 1996 edition
by Philippe Eliakim

It isn't just Mad Cow Disease. It's hormones, false labelling, subsidy fraud, illegal imports etc...... dive behind the scenes and look into the worrying world of beef.

When a case is serious, Mr. C, a breeder, uses a small slaughterhouse, not far from the banks of the river Garonne. "They don't worry you with any questions there" he explains. Pumped full of antibiotics, balding, and heavy-lidded, the cow culled in the incident he describes has had a raging fever for 48 hours. A sorry state of affairs! "Pus spurted out everywhere when its belly was slit open, we had to hold our noses because of the rotten stench" remembers Mr. C. We didn't throw it out though. It was washed and sold to a supermarket in the South West. Mr. C got FF 5000 for his four-legged infection and still smiles at the memory. "Meat, you know, it's not for the faint hearted...."

Indeed not. But no reason to panick because the vast majority of carcases leaving slaughter-houses are in good condition. This incident does however serve to show that beyond Mad Cow Disease, the meat "trade" is definitely not above all suspicion. Far from it. Illegal hormone trade, disregard for sanitary rules, tax payer grants, money laundering of illegally gotten gains, subsidy fraud, political party funding... all play a part in the industry. The Ministry of Agriculture asserts reassuringly "a goodly majority are honest in the trade". But what of those who are not? It is true the beef sector was largely corrupt in the past, but in recent years there has been a clean up. Nonetheless abuse is still widespread, yet to avoid sparking panick no one wants to talk about it. The Mad Cow crisis demonstrates how sensitive the subject is.

We have moved on to the Aveyron, close to Rodez. The speaker, let us call him Marcel, is a breeder of crate veal-calves. Not much fun, veal crates. During its short life of 6 months the poor beast is confined to a cage so narrow it cannot even turn around. "Terroir Charolais" stuffed full of steroids.

Marcel fattens 150 of this kind of captive. They belong to a big landowner, an "integrator", who entrusts them, together will a little brown vial of liquid into Marcel's care. "They're to swallow around one cubic centimetre a day" the caretaker explains. "That's the dose". As for the rest, my instructions are not to get caught, to hide the bottle in the house, never in the stable and to keep my mouth shut.

What hormones are in the vial anyway? Clembuterol? a substance known to cause problems in humans. Dexamethosone? a corticosteroid which swells animal tissue so that when cooked, shrinks down to half its size. Or could it be the fearsome DES, whose carcinogenic effect has long been known. Perhaps it's all three in a cocktail? Marcel hasn't a clue. "All I know is it's illegal and it fattens up the animals".

Now our witness is far from being a marginal outsider. There's many a Marcel to be found in France. "Without the extra weight (and therefore the extra profit) you get thanks to the hormones, they wouldn't survive" confirms a veterinarian. And so it is that the Rodez slaughterhouse, like so many others, observes thousands of carcases go by for market, stuffed to the hilt with hormones, and it doesn't turn a hair. Naturally enough, such places view the "trade" with indulgence. "There's too much at steak" explains a director of the Confederation paysanne, second biggest agriculture union in France.

Take this spectacular example. In 1994 a bunch of wordly-wise inspectors discovered that beef marked "Terroir Charolais" one of France's most prestigious labels were gorged full of anabolics. "If the public had found out, years of efforts would have been ruined. Instructions were given to drop the matter" recalls an government official from the Ministry of Finance. The struggle for probity seems a touch more earnest today.... Mad Cow oblige...... An "integrator" from Villefranche-de Rouergue got caught red-handed a few weeks ago. He faces a probable spell in gaol. Others scandals are before the courts as of this writing. But the clean-up will take time.

"You can still buy hormones at any livestock market" splutters Gilbert Mouthon, professor at the veterinary school of Maison Alfort. "For a while the sales' reps touted discreet ensignia pinned to their jacket lapels." says Pascal Mainsant an Inra meat specialist (Institut national de recherche agronomique). This mafia-owned network operates just like the drugs trade. Secret laboratories in Italy and Belgium, smugglers, dealers, webs of operators and informants and inevitably guns in belts. A belgian veterinary inspector who got too close too close for comfort was assasinated in February last year. Only a couple of months ago in May one of his colleagues suspected of involvement hanged himself.

But let's put the hormones and the bellies full of pus behind us. The very famous Viande Bovine Francaise (French Beef Meat) harbours other apetizing residues within its tissue. Antibiotics in particular, not only do the animals guzzle them down but it's legal. Though increasingly specialists view the practice askance. Nearly all animal feeds contain avoparcine in homeopathic doses to stimulate livestock growth. "Strains of bacteria become anti-biotic resistant as a result" explains Professor Nouet of the Piti╚ Salpetri╦re hospital. And allergic consumers are not even taken into account. "We will have to curb these practices one day" admits Ren╚ Laporte, president of the federation of livestock traders, a group not well-known for self criticism.

Likewise, one day, sanitary prevention methods will have to be applied. In theory nothing should escape veterinarians. Each and every head of beef has identification (see story below). Once a year the animal is checked for bruxellosis and leucosis, dangerous sicknesses to man. If a test is positive.....Off with its head! and just as for Mad Cow Disease the whole herd gets the chop. However, Vets can be forced to sign health certificates.

The rule is unbending, its application remarkably pliable. Thus it was that a breeder from the Limousin, with two cows which came down with bruxellosis saved the rest of his herd. "I just shouted alot, and in the end things worked out". And a representative from the Confederation paysanne confirms this saying "You can negotiate anything." Does it have to be spelled out? In the rural areas breeders and "horse traders" weigh heavily in the electoral system, and pressures from the trade can work wonders. A few months ago the veterinarians' union (control body for France's herd) lashed out in revolt, their letter to the Minister of Agriculture was vitriolic, it said the orgnisation was fed up to the back teeth at having to sign virtual health certificates never setting eyes on the animals concerned.

And now we're off to Rungis. Before dissappearing down Parisian digestive tracts, hundreds of carcasses hang suspended by the ankle waiting for 3 am and beyond when buyers will drift in. Naturally, there is some good, even some excellent flesh to be found. And then there is some less appetizing...... meat which has outlived its sell-by date. "We all have stuff at the back of our refrigerators which we would'nt show the vets" admits one manager. If it's frozen, no problems we just discreetly change the date and you give yourself an extra year's leeway. But if the goods are 'fresh', no messing, you need to get rid of it fast and on the quiet. "Normally we'd sell it to moslem butchers, or to large scale caterers" explains a meat worker. "You know, staff canteens, hospitals. They know the stuff will be cooked up the same day, so there's hardly any risk."

Alternatively : if the meat is really off the dealers manage to flog it overseas. "We're not daft." Work it out right and a whole consignment of virtually rotten meat can earn more than the price of the choisest filet. Jacques, owner of one of the many import-export outfits on the market knows this better than anyone. You get a amenable vet to stamp the meat, you take out rock solid insurance and you pack 'em off to Africa" he confides. On arrival at customs the customer obviously refuses the merchandise, but well, the insurance'll pay up no problems, 80% of the value of the stock. If necessary Jacques gets one of the three well known corrupt brokers in on the deal. Finally you send the stuff off to an animal food factory in Switzerland for about 15% of the price. Then just apply for your EU export subsidy which can be as high as 80% of the normal value.

Nothing unusual about it, in the butchers' trade it is very easy to milk a carcase for profit. It is essential to know that every year Brussels allocates billions of francs to support prices and prop up the sector. Thanks to a positive jungle of premiums, fiddling on a formidable scale has developed. Lets not stop even stop to consider small scale cheating... manipulating, registering non-existant herds (a quite common practice in Corsica) cashing in on milk quota premiums; fixing calves' birthdates so as to pocket the bull beef premium (which only applies to males over 8 months) and all the other trivia which contribute towards a breeder's cash-flow and ensure he doesn't go without at the end of the month! Export subsidy fraud on goods sold to non EU countries ("restits" as the system is called by those in the know) and surplus stocks (accumulated when for example over-production looms, which causes the EU to buy the surplus carcases and stores them in gigantic refrigerators) are of quite a different proportions. The can involve hundreds of millions of francs annually. Phantom cargos, consignments reimported into the Community, substitution of goods (the rate of subsidies varies according to the cuts)..... Imagination demonstrated by crooks practising these methods appears to be unbounded.

"There are those who replace filet with cheap cuts. I prefer to slip fat into the carcases to gain weight" explains a practitioner. Customs blocked a consignment of Italian meat which was made up entirely of wood chippings. The price for uncovering such a trick? A CGT (union) representative in a meat paring outfit got sliced up in pieces with a meat chopper. It happened a couple of years back. The perpetrators were acting under management instructions!

Such crimes were and remain common occurences. "All the big firms in the business resort to such measures" insists a customs officer. They do so without taking the slightest risk, as their shady practices are generally overlooked. Why such indulgence? "First, because other countries are doing likewise. But also because governments have always viewed pillaging subsidies as a way of refurbishing business's coffers" explains a source at home amongst such circumstances from the Ministry of Agriculture.

There is another explanation. For years such fraud went on with the connivance of the quasi-governmental body dispensing the subsidies (Ofival), which was channelling party political funds, on the right as well as the left. Small fortunes were involved. "The companies wanting export quotas, or intervention stocks had to deposit a share of their subsidies" a high ranking official from the Ministry of Finance (Bercy) explains adding "When ever such cases came to light we were under instructions to file it".

The litany of mischief in the meat trade goes on, there is labelling fraud (Rouergue veal from Poland!), there are endless lists of petty fiddles going on in the sector, (some slaughterhouses charge cheat clients by weighing in the hook as well as the meat!) More worrying still is the appeareance of black sheep poping up in big establishments where one would not expect such practices.

A few months ago, a certain well known hypermarket chain in the Paris area was selling French lamb at cut price rates. It wasn't French lamb at all; it was old New Zealand mutton which had in its life served for years to produce sheep milk. The rate for such quality products are rock bottom. The source to have revealed this incident knew well what he was talking about. He it was who supplied the goods. He too who, upon request from the hypermarket, stuck the false labels on all the packaged portions. The going rate for such counterfeit labour, 1 frank per kilo.

From stable to sales display, fraude and sanitary negligence pollutes the profession:

Hormones: Some breeders continue to gorge their animals with these though it is totally ilegal.

Antibiotics: Present in all animal feed. Consequences to human health are little known

European subsidies: To become elegible farmers falsify calf birth date

False certificates: Crooked dealers procure and sell livestock without identification of origin

Money laundering: A substantial part of transactions are in cash

Health slip ups: Some crooked dealers specialise in passing off sick animals

European subsidies: Illegal dealing valued to several hundred of millions of French Francs per year.

Value Added Tax fraud: At the Italian border exporters "forget" to pay their taxes

Clandestine imports: Hundreds of illegal live animals and carcases each month

Shady health inspections: Some outfits let sick animals through

Weighing sharp practices: Fat removed from animal carcases thereby reducing weight and sale value

False stamps: Value of sold carcases overvalued in the EU

Work conditions: Standing in refrigerated temperatures from 5 in the morning, meat parers earn barely more than the basic minimum wage

Trade in meat cuts: Meat destined for Public EU Storage (public intervention) are switched for worthless cuts

Trade Union supression: Widespread in factories

Illegal labour: At Rungis, operators and dealers commonly resort to workers not in possession of legal papers

Relabelling: Some traders disguise the orgin of meat

Under-the-counter-sales: Poor quality meat, beyond sell-by date is passed off by side-stepping veterinary inspection

False labels: The fraud squad constantly bringing to light such cases

False claims to customers: Some retailers pass off poor quality cuts for quality meat

Abusive use of label "Viande Bovine Fran┴aise:" Butchers and supermarkets sometimes slap these on imported meat

At Clisson, dealers made police fraud-squad retreat:

Fifty were called in on the job. Bikers, drivers, weapons. An aircraft was on hand for

scouting. And to crown it all an whole brigade transported by helicopter. It was in July 1995, the authorities gave it their everything they had. The target? Clisson's livestock market in the Nantes region, one of the biggest in France. And what were the customs and health inspectors after? Everthing and nothing. They were hoping to catch illegal dealers. Animals without health certificates. Deals done without invoices. "For a whole day we blocked all roads leading to the town, every truck coming in and leaving was searched", a customs officer recalls. By nightfall the police besieged the market. A helicopter touched down on the precinct. Inspectors leaped out of police vehicles. About twelve trucks had not dared to try to leave the town and were still waiting at the market to make their escape. They were probably all doing illegal trade. Caught red handed? Not really. "They closed ranks en masse and got to threatening"

Then what? Then the customs police and veterinary inspectors got back into their cars and helicopters and left. The crooked dealing truckers calmly climbed into their trucks and took to the road.

Is French beef meat ["Viande bovine francaise"]always French?

Is the new French meat label (VF), popping up in every shop windows and focusing huge advertising budgets really any guarantee to the consumer? If the head of the fraud squad (it picks up relatively few illegal cases) and the professional sector is to be believed yes it is. "Our control system is exemplary" the latter stress. On closer inspection however some weakness in the system come to light.

First stage : Animals born in France are ear-tagged and numbered with identification which is impossible to counterfeit. "It takes approximately 4 seconds to remove", smiles a vet. And another four to replace it with another. "In 1995, I imported and naturalised a hundred head of English veal" confesses a breeder from the Cantal. Stories like this abound in the countryside.

Second stage : Every head of cattle has ID papers (nicknamed "Daub") together with health documents. Without this it impossible to guarantee an animal's place of origin. In the Cher region at Sancoins, the going rate for a false "Daub" is between 10 and 12 FF. Inspectors checking merchandise often come across rather exotic identification papers. "We sometimes come across papers belonging to animals which have long since died" discloses a veterinary inspector. Such techniques enable imported animals to be covered. Each week cattle consignments from Poland or Rotterdam enter France illegally. Spanish herds cross the Pyrennean mountain range to get into the country illegally. "Everybody knows some of these beasts will naturalised" moans a director of a meat paring firm. But underhand dealing doesn't stop at live animals. Last year inspectors burst into a warehouse in the North of France. Workers were in the middle of putting false labels on the carcasses......

Third stage : the shop display. Theoretically butchers and supermarkets only use theVF label when they can guarantee the origin of the meat. But in fact such indicators are used pretty liberally. "I could point to several butchers and restaurateurs in town who lie about the French origin of their meat" expostulates a slaughterhouse director for a northern city. "A retailer can buy half a French carcase and another half Polish then sell the lot under the VF ticket!" an expert confirms. The Ministry of Agriculture know this full well. In May he had to remind some supermarkets of the real use intended for such labels.... "In the few weeks allocated it was not possible, in such a complex sector, to put an effective guarantee system in place" admits a wholesaler. So the label does not give a 100% guaranty. But it will have contributed to cleaning the business.

Working conditions --Strenuous shifts, difficult working hours, slipping salaries:

With a targetted gesture the worker pierces the piece of beef, extracts a bone and tosses it into a metal gutter all this is done with the grace of an experienced basket ball player. We are in a meat paring workshop part of the Reims Bigard slaughterhouse. A pretty common trade in the area. Here 300 beef cattle are transformed into steak. It is just after twelve. For almost seven hours, standing in this freezing hall (2C) surrounded by screaming of electric saws, our labourer debones endless slabs of carcas in this way. No time for slacking though, there is a pace to keep up (one carcas every 3 minutes 45). The boss is Patrice Monguillon, stop-watch in hand, he organises the division, the rules and the pace of the labour. "The good ones keep up easily, the others have to make that much more effort" he explains. Our deboner, paid a touch above the natioanal minimum wage, doesn't complain much. In the adjoining hall a colleague is gutting the warm freshly slaughtered cattle. There is that smell. Bigard is no exception "the meat industry does unite among the toughest conditions" admits Pascal Fournet, the CGT agrifood Union representative adding "Work accidents are commonplace, hours tough and practices archaic" At the Mur-de Bretagne slaughterhouse, a union delegate got the sack the same day he was nominated. At Gad, the management drove a truck through picketing workers. At Quimperl╚ the Bigard outfit got fined for banning workers from stopping work to urinate.

French gourmands face lean times

French gourmands face lean times The Times: Britain: July 24 1996

FRENCH butchers reported a sharp drop in the price of lamb yesterday after European officials announced plans to ban certain offal from sheep, goat and deer. Three weeks ago, the French Government announced a ban on "all sales of the central nervous system of ruminants", including brains and spinal columns of cows, sheep and goats, after recommendations from scientists. The spleen, thymus (used in ris de veau or sweetbreads), intestines and tonsils are also banned from human consumption if the animal was born before July 1991.

The government bans deprived France of yet more culinary delicacies and added to the meat industry's economic nightmare. The Government urged that its precautionary measures be extended throughout the EU and the Agriculture Ministry yesterday commended the attitude of Franz Fischler, the Agriculture Commissioner.

Le Monde reported yester day that at Rungis food market outside Paris the price of lamb, which had climbed during the initial BSE crisis, had dropped by a third in the past few weeks.

With cervelle d'agneau (lamb's brains) joining the beloved national dish of tête de veau (calf's head) on the banned list, French gourmands with exotic tastes are facing increasingly lean times.

"Goats and sheep gone to pot," declared a headline in France-Soir yesterday. "Is this the end of roast kid?" The newspaper noted that recipes for sheep and goat offal can be found in any book of traditional French cuisine, adding: "The haggis, celebrated but hard to find in France, can also perhaps be considered a dish in danger ­ even when one is tipsy from the tastiest whiskies."

"If in doubt, abstain," declared France-Soir, advice that could hardly be further removed from French gastronomic tradition and an indication of the deep effects of "mad cow" disease.