They are among the most celebrated names in the gastronomic world, kings in the kitchens of France's finest restaurants. Now, in their search for culinary perfection, the elite three-star chefs have launched a crusade for a Europe-wide ban on genetically modified crops and livestock. They fear that lax controls could threaten cherished ingredients for their famous dishes and lead to an equivalent of 'mad cow disease'.
The rebellious cooks, headed by veteran Alain Senderens, wish to persuade 3,000 other well-known chefs in Britain and other European countries to join them. The campaign was launched in the run-up to a Brussels meeting on Thursday when European Union Agriculture Ministers will discuss genetic experiments for agricultural products which are officially backed by France's Research Minister, Claudie Haigneré.
Among the household names in France backing the protest are Pierre Gagnaire, Bernard Pacaud, Alain Dutournier, Guy Savoy and Guy Martin, all of whom have three stars in the Michelin Red Guide and near-perfect scores out of 20 in the rival Gault-Millau. They are supported by the hotel and restaurant union, UMIH, whose 80,000 members dominate traditional food outlets in France; and by the specialist Euro-Toques association, which groups 3,000 well-known chefs in Europe whose menus average out at about £100 a meal.
Senderens, who received his third Michelin star 24 years ago, is as outspoken on the subject as the organic farmer José Bové, who went to prison for leading a raid by his militant Confedération Paysanne on an experimental field of maize and campaigns worldwide for an international ban. With the help of a retired chef, André Daguin, who runs the UMIH, Senderens started gathering the big names two years ago.
'We decided to take action after meeting scientists to discuss
the real impact of genetically modified crops,' said Senderens.
'Those experts who depended on big companies for their income were
in favor, claiming there was no safety risk. Independent researchers
were against. Too many questions were left unanswered. There is
not just the health question - there is the richness and variety
of traditional products at stake. When more genetically modified
food is produced, the amount of traditional varieties will fall.'
Most of Senderens' supporters were reluctant to join at first because of fears of a backlash from clients already suffering from a series of food scares that followed the BSE epidemic. But after a private meeting in Paris, they went public. Gagnaire, who runs Le Balzac, near the Eiffel Tower, said pressure to produce genetically engineered food was 'perfidious' and was intended to force farmers to become dependent on big seed producers. 'We must protect the growers of honest and tasty products,' he said. 'We are soon to be offered potatoes incorporating insecticide, but there is no guarantee there won't be an impact on health in 10 years.'
Pacaud, whose restaurant, L'Ambroisie, is in the Place des Vosges, feared mistakes might be made leading to a scandal within five years as serious as mad cow disease .
After a meal at Senderens' Lucas-Carton, on the Place de la Madeleine, the cooks issued a statement saying that in the 'interests of taste and health' all open-air experiments should be stopped and inspection methods improved to detect the presence of genetic changes in food already on sale. They claimed EU tolerance levels were inadequate and up-to-date detection techniques were being ignored.
André Daguin, the UMIH chairman, said the next objective was to persuade European restaurant owners that their clients could be in danger. 'The big names in the kitchen - the locomotives of the industry - must be heard,' he said.
Haigneré said in advance of this week's EU meeting that she
favors open-air and greenhouse research into GM crops and an end
to secrecy, 'We can't go on hiding behind defensive and wait-and-see
principles,' she said. 'Research must be carried out openly. If
we don't experiment we will never be able to debate this question
calmly, and we might be deprived of the advantages this science
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002