A French Grocer Protested Stupid EU Food Regulations and Won

Carrefour used artful civil disobedience and smart marketing to challenge ridiculous regulations.


Eric Gaillard/REUTERS/Newscom

A French superstore (or hypermarket) chain, Carrefour, recently fought back against dumb EU food laws—and won.

You've probably never heard of Carrefour. The company, headquartered just outside Paris, opened its first hypermarket in 1963. Today, the company operates more than 12,000 stores in more than 30 countries, boasts nearly 400,000 employees, and generates more than €100 billion in annual sales. As of last year, according to the Financial Times, it was "the world's second-largest retailer in terms of revenues."

Despite top-flight revenues, critics, including some key players inside the company itself, have long painted Carrefour as stodgy and stuck in its ways. But that might be changing.

The company recently partnered with Google to sell groceries online in France, the first time Google has entered the realm of online food sales. Carrefour also recently announced a partnership with competitor Système U on purchases of food from "large national and international brands," in a bid to remain competitive against retail and online competitors.

Last month, the grocer also announced it would become the first French grocery to ensure all of its store-brand packaging is recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025. And it reported this month that it was swapping out plastic bags for biodegradable ones in all of its Romanian stores by next year.

While these recent announcements by Carrefour paint a pretty cool picture, the company made perhaps its biggest impact recently by openly flouting a set of ridiculous EU regulations that caused millions of farm seed varieties to be banned. These longstanding and mind-numbingly stupid EU seed rules were as awful as they sound.

Under the rules, legal seeds were listed in the suitably nefarious sounding Official Catalogue of Authorized Species, which "dictates which seeds are eligible for sale and cultivation" in the EU. (Notably, such controversies aren't uniquely European.)

"In Europe, the commercial seed supply system is highly organised and controlled. European law on seed marketing has evolved over the years to ensure that only uniform seeds for industrial farming can be sold on the market, condemning farmers' seeds and traditional varieties to the black market if not complete illegality," wrote French farmer Guy Kastler in a 2005 piece.

The purpose of the EU seed rules, adopted in the early 1980s, was "to prevent unscrupulous seed merchants from selling poor-quality seed of unknown varieties." In reality, though, the rules, reports indicate, made more than 2 million varieties of seed illegal, or 97 percent of farm-appropriate seeds.

Carrefour challenged the rules in an effort "to provide its patrons with more options while supporting agricultural diversity." The company did so through a campaign dubbed invariably "Forbidden Market" or "Black Supermarket," which saw the hyperstore selling "illegal cereals, fruits and vegetables" from forbidden seeds in an effort to mock and overturn the rules.

This wasn't a risk-free protest. Carrefour risked steep fines with its black-market tactics. Put in American terms, the company's actions might be the equivalent of Walmart protesting dumb laws by selling raw milk in all its stores or giving away untaxed grocery bags in stores forced under the law to collect bag taxes.

Carrefour's may be the first radical corporate protest to involve the sale of, for example, forbidden varieties of radishes.

"Around 40 [Carrefour] stores around Paris and Brittany began selling varieties of fruit and vegetables never previously marketed in supermarkets and hypermarkets, including pink onions from Armorica, Camus artichokes from Léon, Glas Ruz artichokes, half-length Cléder shallots, Angélique pumpkins, Kouign Amann butternut squash, Kanevedenn tomatoes, Trégor white beans, Brittany tangy rhubarb and Armorican black radishes," the European produce-buyers website FruitNet reported this month.

Stunningly, the EU flinched. "A campaign backed by French retailer Carrefour that called on the European Union to abandon restrictions on the sale of many different types of organic fruit and vegetable seed has apparently achieved a major breakthrough, following a decision by European agriculture ministers to relax EU-wide regulations that had been in place since 1981," FruitNet reported.

"After the European Parliament approved the unrestricted marketing of farmers' seeds in April, organic farmers' seeds will no longer need to be included in official catalogues, with sales authorized for organic farmers from January 2021," Carrefour said in a news release.

This will likely spur the return to grocer shelves of many produce varieties that had been banned under the law, something Carrefour and others have viewed as a real problem.

"[T]he main barrier to food quality in France is not the competitors [nor] consumers' behavior; no, it is the law," said Gaëtan du Peloux, who led the marketing for Carrefour's Black Supermarkets campaign, in remarks that touched a particular nerve with me, since I wrote a whole damned book that makes this argument. "So we came up with the idea that, to change the law, maybe Carrefour had to defy it."

"It's heartwarming when a brand uses its scale in the interest of the public good," Adweek reported of Carrefour. "It's better still when its impact is so massive it changes harmful laws."