January 16, 2009 / 12:15 PM / 9 years ago

No roquefort in U.S? Let them eat junk, French say

PARIS (Reuters) - We'll keep our fine cheeses and you can keep your hormone-treated beef, was the broad sentiment in France on Friday after the outgoing Bush administration tripled import duties on roquefort to 300 percent.

The soft, blue and pungent cheese is just one of a list of European products hit by U.S. measures meant to pressure the EU to drop a ban on U.S. beef treated with growth hormones.

Roquefort, made from sheep's milk in southern France according to a tradition stretching back 1,000 years, epitomises France's gastronomic heritage. The U.S. move, part of a long-running trade row, was received like a slap in the face.

"Fine! They can keep eating their rubbish, we'll keep the best food to ourselves," a blogger wrote on the website of the newspaper Liberation.

"Some roquefort with a glass of fine wine from the late harvest ... what a treat!" said the correspondent, one of hundreds of French web users commenting on the development.

The cheese was expensive with the previous import duty rate of 100 percent. The U.S. gourmet foodstore Dean & Deluca was offering on its website two pieces of roquefort of 3.5 ounces (100 grams) each for $30 -- before the new tariff takes effect.

The row was reminiscent of previous food fights that have marked Franco-American relations in the era of President George Bush, who relinquishes office on Tuesday.

No one has forgotten the switch of language from "French fries" to "freedom fries" when then-French President Jacques Chirac opposed Bush's plans to invade Iraq.

"We're tired of being a symbol for the American government. Maybe the Bush administration indulged itself by taking this decision just before it leaves," Robert Glandieres, president of the roquefort producers' group, said.

In commercial terms, the impact will be very limited. A spokeswoman for the roquefort producers' group said exports to the United States represented 400 tonnes per year, or just 2.5 percent of total annual sales of the cheese.

She said exports to the United States would likely grind to a halt because few U.S. consumers would be able to afford roquefort at the new prices.

Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier said France was unbowed over the ban on U.S. beef.

"We will not import hormone-treated beef, nor will we import the technique of treating chicken with chlorine wash as is practiced in the United States," he said on France Info radio.

Firebrand anti-globalization campaigner Jose Bove had a solution to make up for the expected shortfall in U.S. sales.

"French people and Europeans will just have to eat even more roquefort," he said.

Additional reporting by Nicolas Fichot in Toulouse, Editing by Michael Roddy

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