In a country that claims to be the real birthplace of appetizers that the Americans have the temerity to call fries, the rescue of the potato industry could easily be a matter of Belgian national pride.
So, while a coronavirus lockdown keeps restaurants, bars and many of the 5,000 Belgian fries closed, the professional association of the national potato industry calls on the population as a whole to ensure that fryers are lit on the home front.
“Traditionally, Belgians eat fries once a week, and it’s always a festive moment,” said Romain Cools, secretary general of the Belgapom industrial group, on Tuesday. “Now we ask them to eat frozen fries twice a week at home. “
The demand for frozen potatoes has dropped in recent weeks, and the Belgian industry risks a loss of 125 million euros ($ 135.5 million), if hundreds of tonnes of excess potatoes do not move this year, said Cools.
“This is the first time in 30 years of my career that I have had to call the authorities for help,” he said. “The potato sector is so important. It should be helped because it is a flagship product for our entire industry. “
The industry wants to find new ways to move excess inventory and avoid waste. In partnership with the Flemish Flemish region of Belgium, Belgapom has set up a program to deliver 25 tonnes of potatoes per week to food banks. Companies are striving to export part of their supplies to Central Europe and Africa, where demand remains high.
The industry also plans to work with starch factories to find other uses for excess potato stocks, such as animal feed or green electricity generation.
France and Belgium claim to have invented fried potatoes as a side dish. But the culture of French fries is stronger in Belgium, where people share the taste of beer with potato-eaters in Britain.
Belgians eat 38 kilograms (about 84 pounds) of fresh potatoes and 6-7 kilograms (13-15 pounds) of home-made potatoes each year, according to the National Union of Belgian Fries Manufacturers. But even if consumers unite to increase consumption of French fries per capita, the potato sector will not emerge unscathed from the pandemic.
Before the coronavirus reaches Europe, the prospects for 2020 were bright for the Belgian potato industry, the world’s largest exporter, after a 7.5% increase in the production of frozen french fries. But the virus epidemic halted exports to China, then triggered a slowdown in potato sales across Europe as blocking measures were implemented.
After supermarkets saw buyers grabbing all the potatoes they could hoard, demand quickly dropped and continued to drop with the closure of fast food chains, according to Belgapom.
Although Belgium is on the verge of lifting the house arrest order for most of the country’s 11.5 million residents as of Saturday, no date has been set for the reopening of restaurants.
The outdoor cabins known as “fritkoten” where Belgians line up day after day in normal times to buy their beloved fries, were allowed to stay open for takeout during the national lockdown, but around 80 % remained closed anyway after local authorities offered compensation for closed businesses.
Pascal Vandersteegen, the director of Chez Clementine, a popular fritkot in the south of Brussels, says he has witnessed a 30% loss of income due to restrictions imposed to fight the virus.
“Now we have to close at 10 p.m. every day,” he said. “We used to finish work at 1:30 a.m. and 6 a.m. on Friday. But we are an institution. We have been here for 30 years. If everyone closes, there will be nothing left. “