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France could run out of foie gras for Christmas after record dearth of butter and wine

Henry Samuel
Ffrance faces foie gras shortage for festive season after two years battling bird flu - AFP

France is heading for a dearth of foie gras for the festive season, producers have warned, with prices expected to soar following a two-year battle against bird flu.

The warning came as the French head for Christmas with a chronic butter shortage and the lowest grape harvest for wine in the country since 1945.

Producers of foie gras, the famed and controversial duck or goose liver pate eaten by millions of French around New Year, are still recovering from a string of cases of bird flu in southwestern France that forced them to slaughter thousands of birds.

Already last year there was a 25 percent drop in production of the delicacy. This year, Marie-Pierre Pé, head of the foie gras producers umbrella group, Cifog, said production was yet again down a further 22 per cent compared to 2016.

A woman takes a foie gras toast during a pro-foie gras demonstration by activists from the farmers' union "Coordination rurale" on November 16, 2017 in Agen, southwestern France Credit:  NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP

"Stocks of foie gras have dwindled after some producers in areas like western Nouvelle-Aquitaine and Occitanie had to stop activities for six to ten months (as a precautionary measure after culling birds affected by the H5N1 virus)," she told Le Parisien. 

This year, foie production has hit a ceiling of 11,000 tons, which represents "23 million ducks, compared to 29 million in 2016 - a year already hit by a first crisis of (bird flu)," she said.

On top of that, foreign buyers like Japan are back after recently lifting a ban on imports of the delicacy due to bird flu fears.

Prices are expected to rise by up to 20 per cent.

"Of course prices are rocketing; there isn't enough to go round," said Marie-Pierre Robert, head of a family farm of 6,000 ducks in Catus in the southwestern Lot. 

She added: "We have customers coming from Toulouse and further afield for supplies because there's no more foie gras where they are. We are ourselves starting to refuse to sell to profession (suppliers) to keep enough for our loyal customers," she said.

France's grape harvest hit a record low in terms of quantity since 1945 this year, but quality remained high Credit:  Owen Franken/Corbis Documentary

Foie gras is made out of the fattened liver of geese and ducks that have been force-fed grain.

Jacques Trottier, head of foie gras group Labeyrie in the western Landes said that "more than 90 per cent of French intend to eat foie gras and smoked salmon during the festive season".

But after a fall in production of 35 per cent in his area, he warned: "The risk of shortages exists for those who wait until the last minute. Our volumes are smaller and there is a risk that there won't be enough to go around."

Cifog still hopes it will be able to cater to 90 per cent of French demands, with the remaining 10 per cent shortfall made up by Hungarian and Bulgarian foie gras producers.

The warning came as France, like other European countries, is facing an ongoing shortage of butter, resulting from a decrease in milk production and rise in global demand. Supermarket shelves around the country are often all-but empty.

As for wine, there will be no shortage for Christmas, but the volumes from this year's harvest were the smallest since 1945, meaning demand could outstrip supply next year.

“All that was missing was a plague of frogs,” said Antoine Robert, son of Jean-Jacques and owner of organic winery, Domaine Robert-Denogent in Burgundy.

There is one saving grace, however; after years of shortages, it has been a bumper year for truffles.