No One Can Agree on What “Homemade” Means

France’s new labeling law was doomed from the beginning.

France’s “fait maison” logo looks like a saucepan with a roof over it.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy David McSpadden/Flickr Creative Commons.

As you enjoy your coq au vin this summer in a quaint Parisian bistro, you may find the staff even surlier than usual. The reason for restaurateurs’ consternation is a law that came into effect on July 15 intended to protect “real cuisine” from the onslaught of industrial food that’s served in up to 70 percent of restaurants in France, according to some estimates.

French restaurateurs seeking to maintain the tradition of quality have increasingly complained of unfair competition from eateries that, most often unbeknownst to diners, simply microwave ready-made meals, defrost frozen products, or slice off a length of hard-boiled egg in a tube for your oeuf mayonnaise.

Whenever there is a problem in France, there are legislators ready to respond with a law. The new fait maison law requires that restaurants serving homemade food say so by means of a special logo that looks like a saucepan with a roof over it. If all the food served in a restaurant is homemade, a poster suffices; if only some dishes are homemade, they must be tagged as such on the menu. If you’re the kind of consumer who likes to know where your food comes from, this might sound like a pretty good idea, but au contraire: This law is as flawed as they come.

The logo itself comprises one problem with the law: It requires that all homemade dishes be identified, under penalty of a fine of up to 300,000 euros and two years in jail. That’s right: If you dare make real food without labeling it as such, you can go to jail. The fact that identifying homemade food as such is not an option but an obligation strikes everyone I’ve spoken to here in Paris as nonsensical. How fair is it that the burden of compliance lies on those offering real food—the people this law is supposed to protect—rather than the purveyors of factory-made food? (It’s worth noting that those hefty fines are in fact not likely to be applied: The country’s consumer protection inspectors are already overworked, and past menu labeling efforts have gone mostly unenforced.)

But the bigger problem with the law is that “homemade” is an ambiguous concept. Ask 10 cooks where the line is between homemade and not-homemade, and you’ll get 10 different answers. Most of the time, this isn’t a huge problem—but as French bureaucrats have found out, it’s very difficult to codify an imprecise term into law.

Most restaurants don’t operate like Ford’s River Rouge factory, producing everything served from start to finish. Some foods are, for practical reasons, produced elsewhere: Cheese-makers make cheese, sausage-makers make sausage, and an outside pastry chef may produce desserts. If you use ketchup on a hamburger (a French specialty … really!), do you have to make it from scratch, or can you buy it ready-made from Heinz? Does meat have to be butchered on site? Can a restaurant serve ice cream from Berthillon (the Île Saint-Louis establishment that’s so successful that it closes in summer, with its entire production being served at third-party restaurants and tearooms) and still display that fait maison logo?

The ministry of the economy provided some unsatisfactory answers to these questions in regulations published on July 13. These regulations err on the side of allowing processed food, reflecting the influence of the agribusiness lobby, and making the fait maison logo nearly meaningless.

The regulations sound reasonable at first (a summary can be found on the ministry’s website). The ministry defines homemade foods as “dishes cooked entirely on site using raw or other traditional ingredients.” So far, so good. But the ministry’s interpretations of “raw” and “traditional” go far beyond how most people understand those words. The regulations permit any food that is purchased peeled, sliced, diced, cubed, cut, ground, cleaned, boned, shelled, portioned, or crushed to be used in a fait maison dish. Even more astounding, and contrary to the very principle attacked by opponents of industrial food, is the approval given to ingredients that have been refrigerated, frozen, and vacuum packed. For sure, flash-frozen fish and vegetables are sometimes of higher quality than their fresh counterparts, but they’re not what people have in mind when they hear the words “raw ingredients.”

Other specific types of products are allowed to be purchased already processed. For the most part these make sense, and they’re in line with what many home cooks consider acceptable to purchase when you’re cooking from scratch. Sausage, cheese, bread, dried fruits, spices, condiments, coffee, tea, chocolate, and alcoholic beverages are among the products that can be purchased from third parties. Some exceptions are more surprising: Industrially produced pasta can be used in a “homemade” pasta dish. Puff pastry can be bought ready-made. Perhaps most shocking: Chefs need not make their own stocks and basic sauces. French cooking is founded on its sauces: How can a cook unwilling or unable to prepare his own sauces claim to be making quality food?

The kicker is a clause that allows absolutely any ingredient prepared off the premises to be used in a “homemade” dish as long as the source is indicated on the menu. Thus, France’s fait maison law allows virtually any dish to be labeled as homemade. Well, almost any dish—after realizing that the regulations as written would allow McDonald’s french fries to bear the fait maison logo, the ministry elves made an exception for potatoes. These are the only vegetables that cannot be bought peeled while still being considered homemade, preventing fast food chains from selling “homemade” fries. Perhaps McDonald’s will find a way around the rule, just as Amazon got around a recent French law that prevented discount booksellers from offering free delivery by proposing delivery for 1 centime. We may see a new innovation on McDonald’s menus: “homemade” french fries with the skin. Or perhaps they’ll just keep selling a product already on the menu and of which the folks at the ministry seem to be unaware: les potatoes (potato wedges with the skin on).

When I was in college, I would make a lovely pseudo-cobbler from “scratch” by baking a can of pie filling covered with a box of cake mix and a stick of melted butter. It was tasty, to be sure, but today I wouldn’t consider it homemade. At home we can fudge our definitions as we please. But when “homemade” food is in fact made in restaurants, and when there are prison sentences at stake, things get tricky. Diners deserve more information about how their food is prepared, and from what kind of ingredients—but no single term, or logo, can convey that information. The “homemade” law exposes the limits of the ministry of the economy, where the voice of the agribusiness lobby speaks far louder than that of independent restaurant owners, and where the expectations and assumptions of consumers have been forgotten.

If the government truly wishes to promote homemade food, it should focus on the fundamental reason factory-made food is preferred by so many restaurateurs: It’s cheaper, and it’s cheaper because it requires less labor. Even though the hospitality trade has the lowest wages in France, they’re still high compared with the cost savings offered by mass production in factories. Although there are tax breaks for the very lowest-paid workers, a sizable chunk of total wage cost still goes to payroll taxes in a system that punishes employers for hiring and employees for working. If the tax system were reformed, the factory advantage would decrease, and restaurants would be able to hire more and better-trained staff. In that case, restaurants might not always serve food that’s “homemade,” depending on your understanding of that word, but they’d be far more likely to serve food that’s handmade.