Butter is in short supply in France - (Markus Spiske) pexels

It is hard to imagine a country where butter is taken more seriously than it is in France.

It is a staple of sauces and baking alike. Without butter, or beurre in French, the croissant would be a leaden mass of flour, and the jambon-beurre sandwich missing a certain something. 

The Rouen Cathedral is said to have been built in part on the back of butter fees, and even today, in the western region of Brittany, salted butter is something of a religion.

So an empty butter shelf in France is like a dry baguette: deeply disconcerting.

But with a slump in European dairy production and a surge in world demand, that is exactly what some French are encountering in their stores.

Alarmed by news reports about the shortage, Laurence Meyre, a 53-year-old professor shopping in a supermarket in southern Paris one recent morning, said she had made sure to stock up. “I thought to myself: Not having butter in France, that’s appalling,” she said.

In truth, the shortages, though noticeable nationwide, have been sporadic, and France gives no appearance of grinding to a halt. But in a country that by some measures consumes more butter per head than anyplace else, that is a fine point.

Online, shoppers shared pictures of empty shelves, and jokers ran fake advertisements offering small amounts of butter for ludicrous prices. Inevitably, a #BeurreGate hashtag popped up.

Last year, France consumed about 18 pounds (8.1 kg) of butter per capita, according to statistics from a coming report by the International Dairy Federation. That is over twice the European Union average, and more than three times the figure in the United States.

Gérard Calbrix, the head of economic affairs at the Association of French Dairy Processors, said the industry had been expecting a crunch since spring. “Over the past year, from June of 2016 to this summer, milk production has fallen in Europe,” he said. “At the same time, demand for butter has increased, on all world markets.”

Croissants are a staple in French Bakeries - pexels

Several factors help explain the mismatch, according to Calbrix and other analysts. Dairy production in Europe, already falling since EU milk quotas ended in 2015, slumped after the summer of 2016 because of bad yields from fodder crops and unfavorable weather.

Meanwhile, as butter has shed some of its unhealthy image, demand has risen worldwide, especially in the United States — where the fast-food chain McDonald’s promised to put butter back in its recipes last year — and in China.

In France alone, butter consumption increased 5 percent from 2013 to 2015, according to a recent report by an umbrella organization for France’s dairy industry, Le Cniel.

The result? Butter prices have spiked, rising to nearly $8,000 (R112 700)  a ton in September from roughly $2,800 (R 39 440)  in April 2016.

But only France has seen shortages, because of the way its food supply chain is organized. In France, Calbrix explained, prices between suppliers and big retailers are negotiated once a year, in February.

“The absence of certain products on shelves is an indicator of tensions between some large retailers and their suppliers,” Le Cniel said in its report, noting that many retailers were refusing to pay the increased market price for butter.

The government has suggested that fears of a mass shortage are overblown.