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09 October 2015

Recipe for Trouble 

Home to some 5,000 friteries (“chip shops” to the English and “French fry stands” to Americans), Belgium annually produces 3.2 billion kilos of frites, more than any other nation on earth.

While the English prefer vinegar on their chips and Americans ketchup, no self-respecting Belgian would dip his fried potatoes in anything but mayonnaise. And therein lies the primary source of an ongoing conflict that is pitting Belgian mayo producers on one side and the state on the other.

In the Kingdom of Belgium, the recipe for mayonnaise is governed by royal decree. Since 1955, no mayo may be produced in the country unless it contains at least 80% fat and 7.5% egg yolk.

However – and this is where the plot begins to thicken – European producers are allowed to produce mayonnaise with just 70% fat and 5% egg yolk.

Importantly, Belgian law does not prohibit the sale of such “foreign” mayo on domestic soil. (In any case, EU regulations would almost surely forbid any such anti-competitive measure.)

Compared to the Belgian stuff, European mayonnaise is cheaper to produce, harming domestic manufacturers. That foreign mayo is also, very obviously, lower in fat, which is an increasingly attractive selling point for today’s consumer.

Given that Belgians consume more than €1.1 billion worth of mayonnaise annually, it’s unsurprising that the domestic industry is lobbying hard for the government to abandon the royal decree and allow them to compete on a level playing field.

Consumer groups appear to be split on the issue: some applaud the potential introduction of a (relatively) healthier product, but others express concern that any change in legislation could lead to the introduction of additional preservatives or other chemicals.

Traditionalists, however, reject outright any potential watering down.

It’s no great exaggeration to say that mayonnaise is an essential ingredient of Belgian national identity, which is also shaped by local icons such as comic-book hero Tintin, crooner Jacques Brel and hip-hop star Stromae.

Consider, too, that when Belgian anti-austerity activists last year sought to humiliate a leading government figure, they did not smear him with the traditional cream pie.

Rather, they pelted the Prime Minister with frites – followed, of course, by an extra-generous squirting of mayonnaise.