Why Are Your Fruit Labeled in French?

I investigate a personal grocery store mystery

I eat a lot of raspberries. Like 1 or 2 cartons a day, often several days a week. It wouldn’t be unusual for me to eat 5 to 10 cartons of raspberries in a week.

This habit has led me to become intimately familiar with raspberry cartons. One unsurprising thing about a raspberry cartons is that they tell you what kind of fruit they contain. Another unsurprisingly fact is that they tell you this in English. “Raspberries”. A more surprising fact is that, they also tell you this in … French. “Framboises”.

Here’s a picture of the carton I buy most often from my neighborhood Whole Foods in San Francisco.

Hmm, maybe it’s just something about raspberries?

Nope. Here’s a package of blackberries. Or “Mûres”, as I guess the French say.

Same with blueberries. “Bleuets”.

Ahh, but you might have noticed while these are all different kinds of berries, they are all sold by the same company—Driscoll’s. “Only the Finest Berries™”! Maybe Driscoll’s is a French company?

Nope. The Wikipedia article for Driscoll’s begins “Driscoll's is a California-based seller of fresh strawberries and other berries”.

Ahh, but maybe they were originally founded in France or have some French origins? Nope again. California all the way. Again, from Wikipedia:

The origin of Driscoll's dates back to the late 1800s. In 1849, a butcher from Alsace settled in California and eventually farmed near Watsonville. The butcher's son, J.E. “Ed” Reiter and Reiter's brother-in-law, R.F. “Dick” Driscoll, began growing strawberries in the region. It was the beginning of what has been referred to as “the California strawberry gold rush.”

Speaking of strawberry gold rushes, the Driscoll’s have again kindly let us know that the French call them “Fraises”.

Okay, okay, but maybe the Driscoll’s just have some obsession with appearing French. (Like Häagen-Dazs, a New York City based company, which pretends to be Danish. Look it up.)

Nope, here’s Ocean Spray’s green seedless grapes. And their red ones. French. French. French.

By the way, if you’re starting to question my French (you should be; I don’t speak French), let Google Translate assure you.

(Blueberries apparently can be called either “myrtilles” or “bleuets”.)

This also helps makes sense of another thing. Why the hell does the top of the grapes box say “Raisins”? Hint: It’s not, as I first thought, because you, with enough effort and ingenuity, could turn them into raisins (then they’d also have to be labeled “wine”). But apparently because “grapes” in French are called “raisins”. Well what the hell are “raisins” in French then? “Raisins secs”, apparently (which I’m guessing means something like “dried grapes”).

The French extends beyond just fruit. Here are some tomatoes and asparagus. “Tomates” and “Aspereges”.

It wouldn’t be that surprising if these fruits and vegetables were labeled in Spanish. Many things in the U.S. are labeled in Spanish, as it is the second most spoken language here after English. There are over 40 million estimated Spanish speakers in the U.S., according to 2017 data from the Census Bureau. By comparison, there are forty times fewer speakers of French, which comes in as the seventh most spoken language in the U.S., after Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, and Arabic. And, as we can see, none of the produce are labeled in Spanish, Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese or Arabic. (Although that would be cool.)

Well, maybe, these fruit and vegetables happen to be grown in France and thus are also labeled in the language of the country from which they originate? This is implausible on its face, as France is not some world-leading producer of agricultural commodities, that is pumping out everything from raspberries to asparagus. And also provably false, by checking the packages.

The raspberries and blackberries are from the U.S. The blueberries, strawberries, grapes, and asparagus are from Mexico. And the grapes from Peru. We are told this on all the packages in English. And in one other language. You guessed it—French!

  • “Produit Du Mexique”.

  • “Produit Du Pérou”

  • “Produit Des É.U.” (United States = États Unis.)

Okay, so what is going on?

I actually haven’t been able to find a definitive answer. But here’s my best guess.

I tried Googling a whole bunch of questions like “Why are fruit labeled in French and English?”. Most of the results just led to websites, articles, and lists along the lines of  “Learn French! Here are the names of fruit in French.”

But I finally got one result that might be a hint at an answer, after Googling “fruit grocery store labeled in French”. That was a link to an official Canadian Government website, which outlines various regulations and laws about “Labelling requirements for fresh fruits and vegetables”. Here’s the key section:

Required label information must be declared in both English and French on consumer prepackaged (definition) fresh fruits or vegetables, and in at least one official language on prepackaged (definition) other than consumer prepackaged fresh fruits or vegetables [205(1), 206(1), SFCR; B.01.012(2) and (11), FDR]. For more details, including information on exemptions, refer to Bilingual Labelling.

While the U.S. does not have an official language, Canada does. In fact, it has two official languages—French and English. And this regulation mandates that all fresh fruits and vegetables be labeled in both of those languages.

Okay, but how does that explain why the fruit and vegetables appearing in my grocery stores in the U.S. are labeled in English and French? Well, my best guess is that the same companies that supply fruit and vegetables to the U.S. (e.g. Driscoll’s) also supply fruit and vegetables to our neighboring markets in Canada. And since the U.S. may not have any laws or regulations about the languages in which produce must be labeled (or maybe they just require English), it’s cheaper and more efficient to just use the same labels for the fruits and vegetables that get shipped to both the U.S. and Canada.

Another small piece of evidence in support of this theory is that I noticed that not everything in the produce isle was labeled in French. Notable exceptions included apples and oranges. Rereading the Canadian law helps makes sense of this too. It says that “Required label information must be declared in both English and French on consumer prepackaged (definition) fresh fruits or vegetables”. And the section defining a prepackaged clarifies:

Prepackaged, in respect of a food, means packaged in a container (definition) in the manner in which the food is ordinarily sold to or used or purchased by a person (definition), and includes consumer prepackaged (definition) [1, SFCR].

Well, guess what food is ordinarily sold in a container? Raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, grapes, and so on. And guess what isn’t? Apples and oranges.

So, mystery solved. The same companies that supply fruit and vegetable to Canada, also supply fruit and vegetables to the U.S. and to save resources, they just use the Canadian label in the American market.

Or at least that’s my best guess. If you have a better one, or know the answer for sure, comment or shoot me a message.