French cuisine has a reputation for quality around the world. Even the words we use in food such as bon appetit, cuisine and gourmand are French.
The steep markups at fine dining establishments and specialty markets for even small quantities of authentic French fare many not scare away the most seasoned of connoisseurs, but it can be cost-prohibitive to the public at large.
There’s an old joke that when you buy imported items from third-party retailers, you’re “paying for the plane ticket too.” In fact, this jest isn’t as far off as it may seem. Third-party retailers have to pay for the product, pay the transport costs and taxes to import the product, and still make a profit from the endeavor.
Cutting out the middleman can both broaden your purchase options and in the long run cut down on your expense. Furthermore, if you’re commercially inclined, you could become a food retailer yourself.
The only catch is that importing food from France may be a more involved process than you might expect.
The Basics of Importing Food to the United States
The American food industry is stringently regulated to maintain the health and safety of American citizens. For example, only 33 countries are eligible to export meat into the United States.
Importing anything takes a lot of pre-planning and bureaucratic finagling. This is especially true if the items being imported are for commercial purposes.
When you import food products into the United States, you’ll have to pay duties that differ in percentage based on the country of origin. Duties serve the purpose of stimulating local economic growth, giving local producers and manufacturers an economic edge, and (ostensibly) as a proportionate response towards countries that charge high tariffs themselves.
If you are importing the food products by mail, these duties might be collected by the post office in the foreign upon shipment of your goods. Fortunately, exemptions exist that can do away with duties entirely on imports of $2,500 or less.
Once you’ve lined up a manufacturer or distributor, you’ll want to turn your attention towards accurately completing the Prior Notice process.
The federal government wants to know everything it can about the contents and shipping information of food entering the USA, down to seemingly irrelevant minutia. Prior Notice is how the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP) collect that information.
You’ll need to work with the food producer or exporter on the French side to make sure all of this information is applied where needed. Because of language barriers and time differences, this can become a bigger hassle than it immediately appears. Preplanning is a huge part of the import/export game.
Products like PriorNotify from RudiCoder can save weeks’ worth of work and lots of ongoing hassle by automating much of the FDA compliance process. It also provides a platform that crosses the language barrier and provides for organized and secure 24/7 electronic communication with your French food producer or exporter to aid in satisfying Prior Notice requirements.
Importing from France
France being a part of the European Union (EU) goes a long way towards streamlining the import/export process as much as possible. The EU uses the Combined Nomenclature, a variation of the Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding system, which further eases import operations by providing uniform classifications for various kinds of goods.
While food is not one of France’s top ten exports, wine certainly is. The import and distribution of alcohol in the USA are regulated even more strictly than food; so much so that yet another federal agency must be involved.
In order to import French wines, champagnes, or other alcoholic beverages into the USA for resale, you’ll need to register and receive permits from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). You will also need to check with your local city, county, and state governments about additional registration and licensing requirements.
The good news is that there are no fees for these permits. The bad news is that it can take up to ten weeks to gain approval.
Importing alcohol has specific additional requirements from the FDA on top of the ones typically applied to all imported food. Moreover, some plant materials used for bottle jackets for wine or other liquids must receive special inspection under the plant quarantine regulations of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
You may be noticing a pattern forming. Every detail is important. Food import and export is not an activity to be undertaken on a whim.
Let’s get down to business. If you’re reading this, statistically speaking, it’s probably because you’re trying to figure out how to import the world-renowned cheeses of France.
There are over 400 varieties of cheese to choose from. There are softer cheeses, like Brie and Camembert; harder cheeses, like Emmentaler; goat cheese; sheep's milk cheese, the list goes on and on.
The EU gives many French cheeses Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, in order to preserve the provenance and authenticity of the more specially crafted varieties that require “every part of the production, processing and preparation process must take place in the specific region.”
In recent years, the import of French cheese has become more difficult. Even popular cheeses are being prohibited from entry.
Cheese being an extremely perishable dairy product makes it difficult to ship long distances in the first place. Worse yet, FDA regulations have effectively banned soft French cheeses like Roquefort, Morbier, and Tomme de Savioie, except from specially approved facilities.
Other Prohibited French Exports
Certain cheeses are not the only seemingly benign foodstuffs from France that the United States denies entry to.
While France can export veal and pork to the USA, it is not allowed to export beef, lamb, mutton, goat, egg products, or poultry.
The long-banned absinthe is now technically available for import into the USA. However, it must be “thujone-free,” the word ‘absinthe’ cannot stand alone on the bottle, and there can be no references or allusions to psychotropic effects via artwork or otherwise.
French culture is often imitated but rarely successfully duplicated. Experiencing the food fare of France directly from the source remains a singular sensation.
You don’t have to wait and hope that a local store will have the French imports you crave. Likewise, if you yourself want to become a purveyor of Parisian products, all the tools you’d require exist online. The rewards are awaiting your entry into the market!