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Why is the French pork industry in crisis?

At 1.40 euro per kilo, French pork is among the most expensive in Europe.
At 1.40 euro per kilo, French pork is among the most expensive in Europe. AFP

French pork farmers have this week been protesting against the Breton Pig Market in Plérin, the authority that sets the price for French pork twice a week. This has turned into something of a crisis, with farmers saying they are paying too many charges, and the fixed prices are too low. RFI details what is exactly at stake here.

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What exactly is the problem here?

"The problem pig farmers have is that the selling price is simply not sufficient to cover the costs of production," Thierry Coué, the head of the Britanny section of the national farmers association, told RFI.

Farmers are arguing they pay too many charges which makes their pork more expensive than other big European Union producers, like Germany and Spain.

Because of this, two of France's biggest pork buyers have decided to boycott the Breton Pig Market this week, saying the farmers are asking for too much money.

The market is in Plérin, a small city in the western region of Brittany. Why is it so important?

France accounts for more than 10 per cent of EU pork production. More than two-thirds of the country's 13 million pigs are in Brittany - that's why the market is located in this region.

It operates like a typical stock exchange: twice a week, sellers and buyers decide on the price of a kilo of pork, which is then reflected at the national level.

So what exactly are farmers upset about?

Well, a few months ago, as Le Monde explains, a kilo of pork was priced at about 1 euro and 20 centimes, though it costs an average of 1.55 euros to produce.

There are several reasons for that, including the Russian embargo on European goods and a decline in consumption in France.

"There are two problems," explains Thierry Coué. "The first is at the French level, with the accumulation of new regulations in the last decade. There’s also a European problem. We have a common currency, but despite that, there’s unfair competition when it comes to wages and health and social obligations. We can’t fight, because our costs of production are much higher than our German or Spanish competitors."

The government has gotten involved. What is it doing now?

This crisis is not a new one. Back in June, the government, farmers and large retailers agreed to bring meat prices up progressivly. The French authorities also pledged to inject 600,000 euros of aid at the time.

On 6 August, a kilo of pork was worth 1.40 euros. But for the farmers that's still not enough.

France Agriculture Minister Stéphane Le Foll gave a press conference on the subject on Thursday.

"Everyone has responsibility," Le Foll said. "There will be no solution if, collectively, we’re not able to have an overall approach on price setting, the organisation of the sector, and on the major challenges at the European and world levels."

He also promised to meet with the president of COPEA, the national association of cooperative activities, and the head of French meat processing company Groupe Bigard in the coming week.

Is there a solution?

A roundtable will be organised by the agriculture ministry on Monday.

But Coué doubts anything will change.

"If action is taken in order to lower our costs, then it’s great," he argues. "If it’s yet again another roundtable to talk about the current situation ... well we’ve already done that. So we want strong action so we can get back on our feet. Right now we’re worn out. We must be able to give visibility to farmers."

Most experts also doubt that a solution will be found quickly. France's pig industry   and its farmers in general   have been struggling for years due to major structural challenges.

Major slaughterhouses have closed over the past couple of years and the trend does not appear to be reversing.

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