Citing food-safety concerns, the United States issued a temporary ban last week on the import of processed meat and poultry from France, including gourmet items such as foie gras, sausages and pâté.
The 11 French companies licensed to export meat products to the United States recently failed inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service. USDA spokesman Steven Cohen could not give specifics on why the plants failed inspection, but said, "We require of foreign plants the same thing we require of domestic plants, in regards to safety inspection systems."
Of the 11 companies, eight produce foie gras, two process meat and one is a pork slaughterhouse.
A statement from the French minister of agriculture, Hervé Gaymard, said that France's own inspectors did not find any problems. "France shares neither the observations of the American authorities nor the conclusions they felt should be taken," the statement said.
Cohen said the ban was not related to the European Union's recent suspension of imports of U.S. poultry and eggs, after an outbreak of a highly contagious strain of avian flu in Texas. French and EU officials have also dismissed any connection between the two events. But Gaymard maintains that the suspension of French products is unjustifiable.
Cohen said the suspension was the final step in addressing concerns about the 11 companies that first arose in 2002. "They had been warned of potential suspension in 2003," he said. "This goes back a long way, and these concerns were raised each time."
Imports of French foie gras have already dropped in recent years. In 1999, the United States imposed a 100 percent tax on the product, amid a long-running dispute between the two countries over genetically and chemically modified meat and produce.
The United States accounts for only about 5 percent of French foie gras exports, but the processed meat ban could cost France about $25 million annually if it remains in place.
Many consumers may not notice the difference, but for foie gras purveyors such as Ariane Daguin of D'Artagnan in Newark, N.J., the suspension could have a profound effect on business.
"For America, it's not a big thing," Daguin said. "For France, it's a tempest in a teapot. For me, it's a huge thing, because I depend so much on French foie gras." Daguin said French foie gras is better suited for slow-cooked preparations such as pâté, mousse and terrine de foie gras.
Before the ban, French foie gras constituted about half of D'Artagnan's supply. Daguin imported about 2,000 pounds of French duck foie gras each week to use in her own slow-cooked preparations. "Now, I'm not sure what I'm going to do," she said. "North American foie gras is better suited for searing and roasting."
On top of that, legislation has been introduced in California and New York, the only states in the country that produce foie gras, to halt the practice of force-feeding birds to make foie gras. If those bills pass and the suspension continues, foie gras could become even more rare a delicacy.
Cohen said the USDA will wait for France to design and implement a correction plan, then the producers must pass more inspections in order for the ban to be lifted. "It's up to them now, and how quickly they can make these changes," he said.