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What the lack of Dijon mustard in France says about our time

The Covid pandemic 19 has exposed something that we should have realized a long time ago, namely that an economic system based on long production chains is extremely fragile. This argument gains strength with Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Among the many minor consequences of the war is the shortage of mustard in France. Mustard has all but disappeared from market shelves, and before that prices rose dramatically. This surprised everyone who assumed that Dijon mustard actually came from Dijon. Why did a war in Ukraine cause mustard to disappear in France? After all, famous brands, known to all, proudly advertise on their labels that they are Dijon mustard. Can there be anything more French than Dijon mustard?

Maybe mustard is prepared even in Dijon, but the raw material, to everyone’s surprise, is imported from Canada and Ukraine. Apparently Canada had a terrible mustard crop, while the situation in Ukraine needs no further explanation. In terms of identification with the place, mustard is to Dijon what a modern football team is to the city that houses its stadium.

The impressive thing about this mustard crisis, an irrelevant detail except for those trying to prepare a real rabbit à la moutarde, it is the revelation of a perennial aspect of social psychology: the search for a conspiracy theory. Because there are those who say that there is no shortage of mustard, that mustard has disappeared from the shelves of the markets because the retail chains are stocking up, that these chains have plenty of mustard in their warehouses and that they intend to offer the product little by little, profiting more from the high prices. The war in Ukraine would be just a pretext.

This is an old medieval trick applied to times of scarcity. There may have been occasions when people actually stocked up on a product in order to make a profit, of course, but people rarely stock up on something that is in abundance.

Still, many people dispense with evidence to believe the mustard storage history. After all, who said she has no logic? Don’t traders always try to make more profit? Isn’t stocking a product an easy way to achieve this? In France, virtually all mustard is sold in supermarkets — a cartel that could easily arrange for the product to be taken off the shelves. No further proof is needed.

The mere rumor that merchants are stocking mustard causes consumers to stock up on the product. If mustard returns to shelves tomorrow in normal quantities, it will quickly disappear because of people who are buying far more than they need. Only after several replacements will the domestic accumulation of mustard stop happening.

Rumors quickly spread through a population supposedly rational in their choices. In fact, there is a lack of other products from the market shelves. The story has recently circulated that a shortage of butter would begin, although it is even more difficult to establish a link between the shortage of butter and the war in Ukraine. Unless, of course, we end up discovering that Burgundy’s grapes actually come from Donbass.

Theodore Dalrymple is a contributor to the City Journal, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and a writer of several books.

©2022 City Journal. Published with permission. Original in English
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