Eating Well in the North of France

A visit to the North of France proves that the French know more about food than just how to cook—they also lead Europe in food processing and research.

In December 2007, I spent several days exploring one of the leading food processing and ingredients clusters in Europe. Centered around the city of Lille, France in the region known as the North of France—just a short drive to the border with Belgium and bounded on the northwest by the narrowest section of the English Channel—the cluster is prospering thanks to a number of factors, not the least of which is easy access to the UK, Continental Europe, and the sea.

The North of France is comprised of the two northernmost French départements (the rough equivalent of states in the U.S.): Nord and Pas-de-Calais. Together, they contain the cities of Calais, Dunkerque, Boulogne-sur-Mer, and Lille. Companies with production and headquarters facilities in the area include Ajinomoto, one of the world’s largest producers of the sweetener aspartame; Bonduelle, Europe’s top producer of canned and chilled vegetables (and second in Europe in frozen vegetables); Roquette, the world’s leading producer of sugarless sweeteners and one of the largest starch producers in the world; and Tate & Lyle, the UK-based producer and distributor of food ingredients used in the commercial food manufacturing industry. All told, the North of France has 184 food industry businesses (with at least 287 facilities) that each employ 20 people or more. The largest, Nestlé, has a workforce of 1,707 across four sites in the region.

Within the food and ingredients cluster lie two interesting sub-clusters. The first—seafood—is a natural for Northern France, given its long maritime history. Boulogne-sur-Mer is France’s leading fishing port. It’s also a focal point for seafood processing, trading, and distribution. Highway A16 is directly linked to the harbor. And because the local seafood industry is an officially designated cluster, the government funds some of its research and development. Financial, entrepreneurial, and worker training incentives are all readily available for cluster companies as well, regardless of the company’s national origin.

The other sub-cluster that has formed around Lille is what might be called a nutrition and health cluster. With all the research and development conducted by companies in the area—particularly by ingredient and food processing businesses trying to find new ways to use the same crops they purchase in bulk every year—it’s no wonder that many discoveries related to human health have been made and commercialized here.

Some of the businesses in this sub-cluster exist solely as laboratories to test and research food products. The force with the most prestige in this area, however, is not a company at all but a research institution. The Pasteur Institute in Lille is a 100-year-old private foundation that occupies a campus in the center city area; it combines a mission of public service with contract work performed for industrial clients. The institute also trains over 3,000 people a year, most of whom are sent by companies. (Besides food, the institute also researches topics in health and the environment, such as water quality.) The presence of such an august institution is a crucial link in the North of France’s leadership in food processing, food safety, ingredient research and production, and nutrition discoveries.