The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

France’s mustard shortage fuels drama and panic in grocery stores

These mustard jars, seen on a Paris supermarket’s shelves in July, probably weren’t there for very long. (Abaca Press/Sipa USA/AP)
7 min

PARIS — It was the local egg delivery man who spread the spiciest gossip about the mustard shortage.

Someone in a small French town had found a way to buy two jars at the grocery store — despite the one-mustard cap imposed by many shops as the country faces a shortage of its beloved condiment.

“The audacity!” said Claire Dinhut, who heard about the local mustard scandal from the egg courier while at her family home south of Tours, in west-central France, as she shared the “town drama” in a TikTok video that has been viewed more than 600,000 times. How the mustard bandit did it: He left the store with one jar, and sneaked back in for a second by checking out with a different salesperson.

Just as summer cookouts — and extra demand for the tangy condiment — reach their peak, France is in the throes of a weeks-long shortage of mustard.

For some, it feels dire — a personal consequence of extreme weather that decimated mustard seed supply in and outside France, and the supply chain disruptions still reverberating around the globe as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The shortage is sparking calls to bring home the production of mustard seeds to rely less on other countries.

The Washington Post visited four grocery stores in western Paris this week that either had no mustard for sale or were out of two common mustard brands — Maille and Amora, which are part of the same company owned by Unilever.

“I haven’t had mustard in three months. You won’t find any [elsewhere either],” said Hassan Talbi, owner of a bodega on Rue de Courcelles. Talbi says his supplier, French retailer Carrefour, sent him one shipment of mustard jars about two months ago — and since then, nothing. No word on when he might get more.

Mustard is a staple of most French diets — adding a kick to fries and sandwiches — and a key ingredient in iconic dishes like steak tartare. It’s also a source of national pride: The production of mustard was regulated in France as early as the Middle Ages, and the world-famous Dijon mustard comes from the Burgundy region. While historians say mustard wasn’t invented in France, many French people claim it as their own.

“This is a sauce that’s loved all over the world — and it’s ours,” Dinhut told The Post.

Yet despite being the largest consumer of mustard worldwide, France has only about 4,500 hectares (about 11,000 acres) of mustard seed crops — the bulk of it in Burgundy, home to the city of Dijon.

Droughts and heat waves that occurred last year in Canada — the source of about 80 percent of France’s mustard seed imports — severely disrupted global supply. Containers to transport foodstuffs are hard to come by, and the high cost of fuel has made shipping costs skyrocket. French producers say mustard-seed-eating insects, which thrive in warmer temperatures, are also foiling crops.

All this has caused some serious soul-searching among farmers and French mustard lovers about how they got to this point. The shortage could be “a tremendous accelerator” for the industry to repatriate production of mustard seeds, Paul-Olivier Claudepierre, co-owner of Martin-Pouret, a French agri-food business, told French newspaper Le Monde.

A Little Dijon on the Side: French City Is About More Than Mustard

People are also blaming the mustard hoarders: French people who read about the shortage and decided to stock up on extra mustard may be fueling the problem, producers say.

On TikTok, French people have posted instructions on how to make mustard at home. Conspiracy theories also abound online, with some users sharing videos purporting to show stockpiles of mustard in supermarket warehouses, and speculating that companies have been hoarding the condiment to artificially drive up prices. Those videos have been debunked, and retailers like Carrefour have said they are getting mustard onto shelves as quickly as possible.

Hubert Guillaume and Naël Bernard, who work in Paris at a Monoprix, a supermarket chain, said they were relieved when they got a shipment of mustard last week — after a month without. “People came in droves to ask us, and there was nothing,” Guillaume said. Some people would come every day, Bernard said, hoping mustard had arrived. Every day, he had to turn them away.

This is quite literally, the talk of the town. Where Dinhut’s dad lives in west-central France — and in other small towns just like it — “If you’re checking out at a grocery store for example, you’re like ‘Ah, still no mustard!’ It’s like talking about the weather,” she said.

Comedians from France and other countries have seized on the shortage to poke fun at the French for their dramatic reactions.

The shortage began in Canada, where unusually dry, hot weather in the regions of Alberta and Saskatchewan last year led to reduced crop yields. The country is the largest exporter of mustard seeds in the world, accounting for 31 percent of global exports, according to the market research firm Tridge. France is the second-largest importer of mustard seeds, which are used to make the creamy yellow condiment.

Meanwhile, crops of mustard seeds grown in France were hit hard by insects this year, says Paul Delacour, who works on his parents’ farm northwest of Paris, which produces the seeds locally.

Delacour and other producers say French and European restrictions on certain harmful pesticides can make it more difficult for them to respond.

Climate change has also played a role, according to Fabrice Genin, president of the Association of Mustard Seed Producers of Burgundy, who says milder winters have been more favorable to insects.

“From 12,000 tons [of mustard seed produced] in 2016 we went down to 4,000 tons in 2021. It’s simple, we can no longer manage the pests,” Genin told French newspaper Liberation. “There is a climate effect, that is obvious.”

It’s not just supply: When there is mustard to be found, it’s pricier. The low supply from Canada, combined with inflation worldwide and the increased cost of shipping, energy and raw materials for packaging, has contributed to a rise in the price of mustard in France — at least 13 percent year-on-year in June, according to the French retail data firm IRi.

Marc Désarménien, the general manager of Edmond Fallot, a family-run mustard producer based in Burgundy, says the price of his products rose 9 percent on average at the start of the year, and will rise again next year to keep up with inflation. But he believes that if Canadian mustard seeds become more expensive, and shortages continue to plague French producers, domestic production will increase.

In Burgundy, where producers agree on a price per ton of seed for the year ahead of time, next year’s price has been set at 2,000 euros ($2,029) for the 2023 harvest, reports the local newspaper Ouest France — a 48 percent increase from this year’s price of about 1,350 euros ($1,370). Groups of mustard producers in Burgundy believe this could make local production more profitable. Until now, importing seeds from Canada was 15 to 20 percent less expensive than sowing and harvesting them in France, according to Désarménien.

“This is an opportunity for the agricultural sector to relocate production,” Claudepierre, of the agri-food company Martin-Pouret, told Le Monde — “and for the public to realize the absurdity of the situation: We cultivate a seed thousands of kilometers away that we will harvest, bring to the port, to cross the ocean in a container, and end up transforming it at home.” It’s “expensive,” he said, and bad for the environment.

But even if the shortage leads to a change in how mustard is made in France, the process will “take a little time,” Désarménien said. And many producers don’t expect the shortage to correct itself soon.

“I’m afraid it will take a while longer before we can restock,” Luc Vandermaesen, president of the industry group Mustard of Burgundy, told Le Monde this month. “It will be tense until 2024.”

If the French can wait that long.