"It looks like a quarrel of bell towers but it is our economic model that is at stake," says Louis Merlin, "simoussi" - local name of the traditional raking tool - in his hands, in the lapping of water that sparkles under the first rays of the sun.
Far from the tumult caused in recent months by the definition of specifications for the organic certification of salt, recognized as a mining and non-food product. On 11th July the European Parliament rejected a draft "delegated act" of the Commission which was opposed by the industry in the sector.
The Brussels text was hardly to their advantage: it excluded several production and processing techniques, including blast extraction of mine salt, refining of salt and its recrystallisation after dissolution.
A traditional raking tool placed on a salt crust in a salt marsh in Saint-Clément-des-Baleines, at the western tip of the Ile de Ré, in western France, September 15, 2023 © Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP
After the MEPs' "no", it is now up to each Member State to draw up its own specifications. A situation "completely ubuesque" for Louis Merlin, who farms a dozen hectares in the west of the island. "We will end up with a label based on potentially 27 national regulations," he laments.
Not to mention a possible deception of the consumer.
"We will have under the same label the most natural sea salts possible, harvested in an ancestral way, with elbow grease; and rock salts or salt harvested mechanically, containing products prohibited for organic in France but authorized elsewhere, "adds the one who chairs the association of producers Rétais, strong of a hundred members.
Another distortion of competition is seasonality: Atlantic salts are harvested from June to September, thanks to the sun and wind after evaporation, while rock salt is produced all year round.
A salt worker harvests salt in a salt marsh in Saint-Clément-des-Baleines, at the western tip of the Ile de Ré, in western France, September 15, 2023 © Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP
The production of these "Petits Poucets" counts for a grain of salt on the plate of the French: of the 200,000 tons consumed in France, only 25,000 come from the marshes of the Atlantic.
In total, they account for less than 0.4% of French salt production, used mainly for snow removal or in the chemical industry, according to the French Association of Atlantic Sea Salt Producers (AFPS), which brings together 600 artisans.
"We are embarked on a story that we would have liked to do without, our 100% natural product did not need this unnatural labeling," plagues Hugues Leprince, president of the cooperative of salt workers Rétais.
In France, a working group of the National Committee for Organic Agriculture, under the leadership of the National Institute of Origin and Quality (INAO), is to define specifications. Which could be modeled on the text of the Commission, according to sources interviewed by AFP.
If this label promises to be "very imperfect", salt workers (producers located south of the Loire) and salt workers (north) will ask for approval by "realism and commercial pragmatism", it is explained: they anticipate a demand from the agri-food industry - in biscuits, rusks, bakery or for the manufacture of ready meals, chips and other preserves.
Packets of coarse sea salt being packaged at the Coopérative des Sauniers de l'Ile de Re in Ars-en-Re, on the western tip of the Ile de Re, in the west of France, September 15, 2023 © Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP
"A distributor already offers organic Spanish salt on the French market, we must go quickly," says Tanguy Ménoret, producer in Guérande (Loire-Atlantique) and president of AFPS, pointing to the risk of being overtaken by foreign manufacturers - and being "the turkeys of the stuffing".
"In the end, it is the mass distribution that wins: between two organic labels, it will always choose the cheapest product," abounds Véronique Richez-Lerouge, departmental councillor of the island of Ré.
"We will not go headlong, we will see how the market reacts," tempers Hugues Leprince, who wants to "trust the consumer".
A salt worker holds fleur de sel in front of a pile of coarse sea salt in a salt marsh in Saint-Clément-des-Baleines, at the western tip of the Ile de Ré, in western France, September 15, 2023 © Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP
The producers are counting on their "valorization and diversification" approach, which began in 2009 with an application for a protected geographical indication (PGI), like the salt marshes of Guérande.
The island has just organized a festival, "Fleur de sel", to illustrate the know-how of salt workers. The method of recovery of this white gold is at the heart of a dispute with other French production areas. Another fight to be fought.
© 2023 AFP