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Special issue on local food products and systems/Numéro spécial sur les produits et systèmes agroalimentaires locaux

Localized products in France: definition, protection and value-adding

Laurence Bérard et Philippe Marchenay


La notion de production localisée recouvre une réalité particulièrement importante en France, à la fois sur le terrain, à travers la grande diversité des produits, et dans l’imaginaire des Français. Les dispositifs de valorisation dont ces produits peuvent bénéficier renforcent l’intérêt porté à certains d’entre eux. Dans un tel contexte, il importe de mieux comprendre ce qui fait leur spécificité, d’approfondir certaines notions, de mettre l’accent sur ce qui les différencie réellement. Ce sont les critères d’ordre culturel associant un lieu à une histoire et à un groupe social qui permettent d’organiser et de penser cette famille foisonnante et polymorphe.
En marge des demandes formelles de protection de l’indication géographique, de nombreuses initiatives contribuent à valoriser les productions locales. Elles sont le fait d'acteurs issus d'horizon divers, dans le cadre d'actions coordonnées, sans être réellement formalisées.
Tous les pays n’ont pas le même rapport au lieu. L’inscription d’un produit dans un territoire est le fruit d’un ensemble de critères au poids plus ou moins important selon l’histoire économique et sociale du pays, sa culture, les rapports de force locaux, le milieu naturel.

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Notes de la rédaction

This article has been translated from French by Flo Brutton, with financial support from the European Science Foundation.

Texte intégral


1France is home to a wide variety of local products. All of them are much coveted these days when emphasis on local origin can help to boost profitability, particularly now that there are regulations in place to protect and promote geographical origin. The core issues here are place, locality, localization, protection and value-adding. Our contribution will be to point out a few benchmarks: points of reference that we think can help clarify, protect and give value to this particular group of products.

2The first part of this article takes a broader look at products that make specific reference to place, then analyses what that place consists of. The second part concentrates on the issues raised by the legal protection of geographical origin. The last and concluding part looks at other, less formal ways of adding value to local products, giving examples of initiatives in France.

Locally made products

3A product’s place of origin may be entirely undistinguished and have no special relationship with the product itself. Known as provenance, this is the simplest form of link between a product and its geographical origins. It merely refers to the place where an animal was bred, or a vegetable was grown or a cake was made.

4A place may claim a historical depth that has no bearing whatsoever on the present-day situation. Its historical roots then are an abstract entity, entirely unconnected with contemporary skills. Loué chickens, for instance, come from a region that was famous for poultry breeding throughout the 19th Century but the local breed and practices on which it depended have disappeared long ago.

5Lastly, there are products whose relationship with a place is both rooted in time and in shared local knowledge. Local products have a collective dimension that makes them a part of local culture and helps to distinguish provenance (meaning ‘to issue from a place’) from origin (meaning ‘to be from a place’). The time span in question may range from several centuries to just a few decades but there is a definite sense of historical precedence. That, linked to memories that have been handed down through generations, is what gives a place depth. In other words, such products straddle space and time and depend on shared knowledge. These three characteristic criterions do overlap strongly. The dominant thread is the collective practice that provides a form of continuity and gives a place meaning. By taking into account the cultural criteria that link a place with a particular history and social group, this approach allows us to organise and make sense of a profusion of local products of every description.

6The sheer extent of their variety has been shown by numerous field studies, inventories and monographs. Local products span the entire spectrum of agribusiness, from plant or animal-based foods – fruit, vegetables and fish – to processed foods such as charcuterie, cheese, bakery products, oils, wines and spirits. Adding to that diversity is the manner in which they relate to local society where not all of them occupy the same place. Some are emblematic of rich cultural foundations while others have only tenuous links with society. For instance, the only distinguishing feature of rapeseed oil from the Ardèche is that the seeds are roasted before pressing. This nevertheless produces an oil with a very particular taste that is virtually unique to the Ardèche region. The same variability applies to the volume, scale and zone of production. Marketing methods and distribution networks range from direct sales to supermarkets. However, all of these food products maintain a particular relationship with space founded on a lower common denominator – historical depth and shared know-how – that allows us to organise and make sense of their variety.

7Considering how important geographical origin is today – particularly in France – local products do tend to be shrouded in ambiguity. Communication plays on provenance as a means of expressing more than can actually be said. Sisteron lamb is a good example. Its evocative name suggests that the lambs are raised in the garrigue around Sisteron when in fact they are merely slaughtered in the town itself. Equally muddling is the common French expression ‘produits de terroir’ that refers alike to products made in a given place and products connected with that place. Indeed, the word ‘terroir’ is so evocative that when used in discourse it often embraces the entire gamut of local products. Free-range products (naturally farmed) usually count as ‘produits de terroir’ even though their only distinguishing feature is farm-scale production based on farm-grown raw materials. Whether they also qualify as local products depends on whether or not they relate to the local culture (rather than just to the land). Farm-produced foie gras from Normandy is a free-range product whereas Périgord foie gras forms part of a localized production system.

8More than historical belonging, the best parameter to explain the nature of that relationship is collective know-how. Bleu de Bresse for instance, already enjoys a certain historical precedence because it has been manufactured in the Ain for the past 60 years. Shared local skills, however, have nothing to do with it. The cheese was invented after the war by a particularly dynamic and ingenious cooperative manager. The same would be true of cakes and sweets.

Origin protection and concept analysis

9The protection mechanisms put in place at European level have drawn even greater attention to local products. The creation of a legal framework makes it possible to establish and protect the relationship between a product and a place by reserving the use of a particular name. This forces us to look more closely at some of the notions arising from the cultural context, particularly since the protective measures in question – from zone delimitation to the drawing-up of specifications – are by nature exclusive. Two points should be put into perspective following European legislation: on the one hand, the relationship between place and the natural environment; on the other hand, know-how, traditions and assessment of historical depth.

Relationship between place and the natural environment

10The name associated with a given place may be registered as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) or a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). Both are designed to protect ‘the name of a region, specific place or in some exceptional cases a country, that refers to an agricultural product or foodstuff originating in that region, specific place or country’. A PDO refers to a product ‘whose quality or other characteristics are essentially or exclusively due to a particular geographical environment with its inherent natural and/or human components and which is produced, processed and developed within the delimited geographical area’. A PGI refers to a product ‘possessing a quality, reputation or other characteristic which may be attributed to its geographical origins and which is produced and/or processed and/or developed within the delimited geographical area’1. The philosophy behind PDO regulation is to protect, by means of a name, a unique product that cannot be reproduced in any other place. Production must be wholly confined to a specific geographical zone and the product’s characteristics must be demonstrably connected with and influenced by that zone. A PGI also provides protection by means of a name but focuses mainly on a product’s reputation, historical links with a given place and particular characteristics and qualities. The product is not required to be wholly manufactured within a specific geographical area: raw materials, in particular, may come from elsewhere.

11Plainly then, natural factors play an important role in PDO. Some places are physically predisposed to the types of production that develop there. The natural environment alone, however, cannot account for what makes these products special. The real key to their transformation is human activity expressed through particular skills, social patterns, practices and perceptions. The French AOC system is inextricably linked with the notion of terroir, a factor that was for many years regarded as a given, pre-dating man – man only served to reveal its potential. Based on wine, the concept focussed on the environmental characteristics (soil, climate, aspect) that were expressed through human know-how and evolved from the wine-growing principles of the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine, renamed since 2006 Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité). As the INAO gradually extended its remit to include the food-processing industry as a whole, it also broadened its approach, so arriving at the definition of terroir we find today: ‘a system built on complex interactions between a set of human factors (techniques, collective practices ...), agricultural production and a specific physical environment (territory). The value of a terroir is enhanced by the product that it makes unique’2. Because of their powerful links with the physical environment, those AOCs most consistent with INAO philosophy may be compared to ‘system products’ meaning products that embody a breed or local variety, landscape and specific practices. They are often related to the maintenance of biodiversity3.

12The PGI relation to place is simply linked to historical belonging and shared practices, two parameters more precise than those of quality, reputation or any other characteristic mentioned in the regulation. Natural factors should be largely irrelevant; many PGI products are in any case processed and therefore entail a pooling of skills.

Can tradition be disassociated from place?

13Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) is a geographical indication protecting tradition rather than origin. It demonstrates the difficulties of disassociating one from the other and is defined as: ‘that factor or group of factors that clearly distinguishes an agricultural product or foodstuff from other products or similar foodstuffs in the same category’4. To qualify for registration as a TSG, ‘an agricultural product or foodstuff shall be produced using traditional raw materials or have a traditional composition or a mode of production or processing which is a traditional type of production or processing’. The TSG logo is designed to protect a traditional composition or mode of production at EU level, independent of origin. However, the infrequency of such registrations throughout the EU shows that tradition is not easy to disassociate from place. Exceptions are mostly linked to practices of production, like suckled veal, salt-meadow lamb and Bouchot mussel farming. There also needs to be agreement at EU level on what practices to specify – not an easy task to judge from the brief attempt to obtain TSG registration for salt-meadow lamb.

14TSG designation relates more to the protection of tradition so as to prevent it from disappearing altogether in the face of product trivialisation. As such, it is primarily intended for generic forms of local product. Mozzarella cheese, for instance, is protected by a PDO for Mozzarella di Bufala and a TSG for generic mozzarella. Since the practices entailed are already covered by food-processing standards, defining product specifications is much easier than for salt-meadow lamb. At a glance, most of the products registered as TSGs correspond more closely to PGIs. Conversely, TSGs perform less convincingly as economic levers than either PDOs or PGIs that will both tend to play a role in local development precisely because they are locally rooted. There is also the question of local food habits and just how useful it is to provide European-wide protection for products that only appeal to local customers. Karjalanpiirakka5 and Finish Kalakukko6 are good examples. All of this suggests that TSG designation is often misunderstood by applicants.

Tradition, history and status of knowledge

15The notion of tradition is implicit in PDO and PGI status but explicitly referred to by TSG: ‘traditional’ means proven usage within the Community market for a period showing transmission between generations; this time period should be the one generally ascribed to one human generation, at least 25 years’7.

16Tradition is definitely related to transmission, but it has to be set within a meaningful historical context. According to EU legislation, a generation, or about 25 years, is the minimum time required to establish roots in time. However, all of the major upheavals in agriculture that led to dramatic changes in farming occurred in the 1950s, more than 30 years ago – so long enough to talk realistically about establishing roots in time, at least in European society.

17Length of time is not something that can be decreed. It has meaning. It forms part of a product’s local history and differs accordingly. It can even vary significantly without becoming an essentially qualifying factor: the recognition of local products is not proportional to the degree of historical depth, a concept often seen as an abstract entity that may, where necessary, be detached from contemporary reality. In fact, local roots must be linked to the know-how that has been handed down to the present generation, bearing in mind technological progress and the particular socio-economic context. Otherwise, history threatens to serve as a means of justifying products, one that plays on a place’s reputation rather than its specific qualities.

18Assessing historical reality can be difficult due to the unreliability of some written sources. These may help to put local products into a context that makes it easier to understand the place they occupy but they rarely provide more detailed information. Oral history must be our witness in such cases, not only to fill in the gaps but also to provide much of the basic data. An absence of written records does not necessarily imply that a product has no historical roots.

19The fact that transmission of usage does not rule out development is another major issue. Just how far can usage and its attendant production parameters develop? Which factors represent the solid core of a tradition that must be left untouched if it is to survive at all? The very meaning of the word ‘tradition’ seems so obvious that no-one dares to define it. But what exactly does tradition refer to? French ethnologist Jean Pouillon (1975:160) originally argued that tradition in European cultures belonged within a cultural representation of time and history that regarded the past as behind us. Gérard Lenclud (1987:111), puts forward a more challenging approach based on an inversion of roles: it was not the past that produced the present but the present that shaped its past8: in other words, a selective interpretation of the past based on culturally significant criteria. To put this into perspective, we need to look at the development of usage and the act of transmission.

20The characterisation of products entails an identification of skills and practices that have developed through experience and observation. But their status is not that simple. They co-exist alongside the scientific knowledge that more or less infiltrates them depending on the particular sector of activity. That coexistence remains untroubled until certain issues begin to take shape that lead to a confrontation between science and tradition. Witness what happens when protective mechanisms are introduced. Products qualifying for protection become part of a logical system of support and supervision based on a zero-defects mentality that puts sanitary conditions first. Traditional skills and practices are frequently monitored and analysed by technicians with no other frame of reference except their own. In France, PGI protection has so far given rise to exceptionally normative enforcement procedures that until the most recent Loi d’Orientation Agricole in January 2006 (Agricultural Orientation Law) had to include quality labelling (Label Rouge or Certification de conformité/Conformity Certification9). As a result, many producers are now reluctant to include specifications based on the know-how that distinguishes local products and makes them special. In such a context, we often observed that producers preferred not to name those familiar skills and practices that they regarded as self-evident, and that seem out of place within a normative descriptive framework.

21The development of tradition is a difficult subject. In France at least, situations vary considerably from one PDO or PGI to another. What’s more, the need to take account of genuinely specific practices is a growing problem for the Director of Veterinary Services (DVS) – except, of course, where those practices are challenged or merely allowed by special dispensations that are not worth the paper they are written on since they can be withdrawn at any time.

Informal ways of adding value to place

22There are ways of enhancing the value of a place without resorting to institutional mechanisms. Looking at a few examples, there is no denying that the nub of the problem resides in the following ambiguity: the ‘meaning’ given to a place.

23In addition to formal procedures for the protection of geographical indications, various other initiatives also help to add value to local products. Part of coordinated (but basically unofficial) campaigns, they reflect the efforts of players from all walks of life but mainly the public sector (Ministries of Agriculture, Tourism and the Environment).

24One such initiative is the identification of ‘notable taste sites’ (‘sites remarquables du goût’) launched by the National Culinary Arts Council (CNAC). To qualify for selection, the sites must be home to products that contribute to the country’s culinary heritage. Other criteria include: specific know-how; exceptional architecture; historical interest; and landscape. All of the sites are open to the public and are members of the ‘Association des Sites Remarquables du Goût’ founded in 1996. In 2001 the name ‘Site Remarquable du Goût’ was registered as a trademark with the French Institute of Intellectual Property. The campaign is closely linked to tourism and sponsors various initiatives including trade fairs where producers within the network can present and sell their products. Direct sales are increasingly important in France, whether through this sort of promotion, via on-farm marketing of free-range produce or at collective points of sale.

25Between 1990 and 2000, the CNAC was also the driving force behind the ‘Inventaires du Patrimoine Culinaire de la France’ (inventory of French culinary heritage). Jointly conducted with the Ministries of Agriculture and Culture, the inventory covered the full spectrum of food-processing activities. Funding came from the administrative regions concerned as part of a national policy to re-launch some of the products listed – or so at least hope the two ministries who took part in the project. Bearing in mind the experience gained from studying the different regions, what we get is a broad picture that captures the variety of local products throughout France. A combination of factors such as historical depth, location, reputation and know-how serves to distinguish typically regional products, with reference to modern interest in the identification of such food resources. A region-by-region account of the findings, published by the prominent publisher Albin Michel, tends to put the project on a more formal footing. Inclusion in the inventory could make it easier to apply for protection.

26The words ‘Parc Naturel Régional’ (Regional Natural Park) followed by the name of a given park became the registered trademark of French Regional Natural Parks in 1997. Owned by the French Ministry for the Environment, the trademark is reserved exclusively for use by French Parks subject to the following rules:

‘the trademark shall be used by the park to identify its events, products and services. The trademark is also authorised for display on products, services and events according to specified criteria relating to the park’s economic activity and goals in terms of heritage protection and enhancement, public information and reception facilities. […] To qualify for the right to use the trademark, a product or service shall reflect the four core values associated with [French Nature] Parks, namely: regional, natural and genuine character and a craft-based approach. The Trademark heightens the holder’s awareness of and commitment to Park objectives in terms of these values, focussing particularly on the protection and enhancement of the quality of the landscape and biodiversity, and the promotion of natural resources and local know-how’10.

27Now more widely used, the trademark nevertheless raises certain questions, especially with regard to the guarantees provided by the provisions for inspection.

28There are also several collective trademarks covering local products. Most of these, however, make no attempt to distinguish between strictly local products – those that are specific to a place – and products that are simply named after a place. The result is that consumers are misled, undermining the initiative in general.

As a matter of conclusion

29The concept of local production is a particular reality in France, both in the field itself, home to a huge variety of such products, and in the imagination of the French people. Regional products, terroir products, local, traditional and free-range products ... There are countless terms to define this uniquely varied family that is thought to add meaning and promote attachment and as such, much coveted. The protection measures now in place make some of these products seem particularly interesting. Within such a context, what matters is to understand what makes these products special, exploring certain concepts and emphasizing what really makes them different. Plainly, the linking of historic roots to collective practices allows us to distinguish between simple provenance and origin that give meaning to a place.

30Promoting these products by means of Geographical Indications raises certain questions. The French legal and administrative system responsible for managing AOCs bases its approach on the link between geographical origin and a particular quality. That approach, although fiercely defended by southern European countries, is described by Thiedig and Sylvander (2000), (reworked by Tregear in 2003) as a ‘roman convention’. In France, the word terroir prevails over all other terms and obscures the diversity of local products, favouring the AOC model in all representations. That model, however, covers a wide range of situations. While some AOCs reflect an obvious match between a specific product and the local culture and pattern of land development, others do not. An AOC is neither a ‘pure and perfect model’, nor does it depend on some sort of immanence. It is simply what men make of it. Indeed, it is not only AOCs that show a link to a place even if in a few cases the model does have undeniable relevance. The pattern applies to just a small proportion of local products. PGI designation is a new arrival and is still finding its way. Previously linked to quality labelling, it tends to favour industrial or semi-industrial products - charcuterie in particular. Mass distribution, seizing a market opportunity, encourage that policy. Some PGIs are nevertheless quite similar to AOCs.

31Not all countries have the same relationship with place. A product’s place within a territory is determined by various factors, some more important than others depending on that country’s economic and social history, culture, local balances of power and natural environment. Advanced industrial societies have gradually lost all notion of place in relation to local agricultural products and foodstuffs. Today, they tend to revive it by revisiting history and tradition. To avoid imperialism, no pattern should take precedence, but every pattern should be acknowledged – not the easiest task when you consider the emotional significance attached to some places.

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Bérard L., Marchenay P., 2004, Les produits de terroir. Entre cultures et règlements. Paris, CNRS éditions, 239 p.

Bérard L., Marchenay P., 2006, “Local products and geographical indications: taking account of local knowledge and biodiversity”. International Social Science Journal, Cultural Diversity and Biodiversity, 187, pp. 109-116.

Casabianca F., Sylvander B., NoEL Y., Béranger C., Coulon J.-B., Roncin F., 2005, “Terroir et typicité: deux concepts-clés des Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée. Essai de définitions scientifiques et opérationnelles”, Paper from an international symposium on territory and regional development issues (Lyon, 9-11 March 2005, 18 p.) CD

Fédération des parcs naturels régionaux de France, 1977, Règlement général de la marque « Parc naturel régional » (Terms and conditions applying to use of the trademark “Parc Naturel Régional”).

Lenclud G., 1987, “La tradition n'est plus ce qu'elle était” (“Tradition is not what it used to be”). Terrain, 9, pp. 110-123.

POUILLON J., 1975, “Tradition : transmission ou reconstruction” (“Tradition: transmission or reconstruction”) in J. Pouillon, Fétiches sans fétichisme, Paris, Maspero, pp. 155-173.

Thiedig F., Sylvander B., 2000, “Welcome to the Club? An economical approach to geographical indications in the European Union”. Agrarwirtschaft, 2000/12, 49, pp. 428-437.

TrEgear A., 2003, “From Stilton to Vimto: Using Food History to Re-think Typical Products in Rural Development”. Sociologia ruralis, 43(2), pp. 91-108.

Zonabend F., 1984, The enduring memory. Time and history in a French village. 1984, Manchester: Manchester University Press (Translated from the French, originally published in 1980 as: La mémoire longue. Temps et histoires au village. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 314 p.).

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1 Regulation (EEC) No 2081/92 of 14 July 1992 on the protection of geographical indications and designations of origin for agricultural products and foodstuffs, replaced by Regulation 510/2006 of 20 March 2006.
2 Casabianca, Sylvander, Noël, Béranger, Coulon, Roncin, 2005, Terroir et typicité : deux concepts-clés des Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée. Essai de définitions scientifiques et opérationnelles, p. 8.
3 Bérard and Marchenay, 2006, Local products and geographical indications: taking account of local knowledge and biodiversity.
4 Regulation (EEC) No 2082/92 of 14 July 1992 on certificates of specific character for agricultural products and foodstuffs, replaced by Regulation No 509/2006 of 20 March 2006.
5 ‘Small, flat open pirozhki / pirogue consisting of a thin crust and a filling usually made of rice or barley porridge, or mashed potato, or alternatively, puréed vegetables such as swede, carrots, turnips, cabbage or mushrooms’.

6 ‘Round or oval bread-based dish consisting of an outer crust surrounding a filling of small whole fish such as perch, eels, white roach or smelt’.
7 Regulation (EC) No 509/2006
8 This Mossi proverb would appear to be saying much the same thing: ‘When memory goes gathering dead wood, it brings back the firewood it wants’ (Zonabend, 1980, La mémoire longue, p.5).
9 The ‘Label Rouge’ programme was created within the framework of the 1960 Loi d’Orientation Agricole (Agricultural Orientation Law). It guarantees that a product conforms with certain qualities and characteristics that are specified in advance, and that it is of superior quality. The Product Conformity Certificate (PCC), introduced in 1990, guarantees that a foodstuff conforms with certain specific characteristics or previously established rules relating to its production, processing and packaging. The Law of Agricultural Orientation of 5 January 2006 states that Label Rouge accreditation and Product Conformity Certification are no longer required for a product to qualify as a PGI.
10 Fédération des parcs naturels régionaux de France, 1977, Règlement général de la marque « Parc naturel regional » (Terms and conditions applying to use of the trademark “Parc Naturel Régional”).
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Laurence Bérard et Philippe Marchenay, « Localized products in France: definition, protection and value-adding », Anthropology of food [En ligne], S2 | March 2007, mis en ligne le 19 avril 2007, consulté le 15 avril 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Laurence Bérard

Ressources des terroirs - Cultures, usages, sociétés, Unité mixte de recherche Eco-anthropologie et ethnobiologie. CNRS et MNHN,

Philippe Marchenay

Ressources des terroirs - Cultures, usages, sociétés, Unité mixte de recherche Eco-anthropologie et ethnobiologie. CNRS et MNHN,

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