High Horses (ESA)

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Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir's picture

Picking up from where I left off last week—forgive me for continuing my rant about food—as I’ve been thinking some more about the origins and quality of food products.

In my column two weeks ago I mentioned the interest of U.S. company Costco Wholesale Corporation in opening a branch in Iceland.

The Progressive Party, which forges Iceland’s coalition government with the Independence Party, has actively protested Costco’s arrival, running propaganda about how U.S. meat is unhealthy—if not outright dangerous—whereas Icelandic meat is pure and wholesome and so Icelanders should stick to that.

First of all, I don’t think it’s for a narrow-minded nationalistic political party to tell me what food is safe and where I should shop, and secondly, it has turned out time and time again in recent years that Icelandic food may not be what it claims to be.

Following the horse meat scandal in Europe last year, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) tested food products in Iceland to determine whether they contained what it read on the label.

While no dodgy horse meat products were found, MAST concluded that all 16 products tested had insufficient labeling, including a so-called ‘beef pie’ which contained no meat at all. In two brands of hamburgers a statement on the origin of the meat was missing.

Apparently, Iceland does not produce enough meat or milk to meet demand, as revealed by the media in the past year or so.

For example, pork is imported to produce bacon, chicken to produce ready-made dishes, beef for steaks and butter to make cheeses. In most cases, the origin of these products is not clearly stated—some were even labeled as Icelandic.

At the same time, Icelandic authorities are banning the import of fresh animal products, which the EFTA Supervision Authority believes is a violation of the EEA agreement. The meat must be imported frozen and then it’s sometimes thawed and sold as fresh.

Complaints on animal welfare have surged—especially in the cases of chicken that are kept in cages and pigs that area castrated without anesthesia—an area where Iceland is lagging behind other European countries.

This week, the discussion of cattle welfare and sanitation in cowsheds resurfaced, in the context that the by-far largest dairy company in Iceland, MS, pools milk from every producer together and so the consumer doesn’t get the chance to avoid buying milk from dairy farmers whose practices are below par.

Last month it was reported that eco-friendly farming has not been monitored in Iceland for 12 years. There has also not been any registry of who has been using eco-labels.

To sum up, a large number of food producers in Iceland are doing a good job. They care for their livestock and make an effort to create quality products.

In many cases, it’s possible to buy vegetables, meat and a range of other products straight from the farm and know exactly where they come from, thereby reward the farmers who emphasize quality and animal welfare.

But most of us buy the bulk of the food we consume in the supermarket and it’s very upsetting that the labeling can’t be trusted.

I have nothing against imported food but I want to know where it comes from and under what conditions it was produced.

If local food is available and of a higher quality, I prefer it over imported food, but how am I supposed to distinguish between it if importers try to pass foreign goods off as Icelandic?

Labeling is often confusing if not plainly false. I once read on a packet of rocket salad: “Produced and/or packed in Iceland.”

Before criticizing how things are done abroad, Icelandic authorities should step down from their high horse and take a long, hard look at agricultural practices and the condition of food production and labeling in Iceland.

And instead of fearing everything that’s foreign, we should learn from those who perform well, and make sure that the food that we claim is of such good quality really is.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir – eyglo(at)icelandreview.com  

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.