November 21, 2005

Bjrky Had a Little Lamb

by peterb

or, "Dear Whole Foods: Stop Pimping Iceland"

Being a middle class, white, liberal, urban-dwelling type with enough disposable income that I don't mind paying unreasonable prices for foods that are only moderately better than I can find elsewhere, I sometimes shop at Whole Foods.

Lately, Whole Foods has been pimping for Iceland. What's behind this? And more importantly, how can I get them to stop?

I first noticed this at the cheese counter. My friend works at the cheese counter, and I've learned to patiently bear it while he explains to me that I should be glad to pay $20/pound for the same Roquefort Abeille I can get at Penn Mac for $10/pound because Whole Foods is worker-owned, and is therefore a better place to spend my money. Accepting the patronizing way in which the Whole Foods Corporation (NASDAQNM:WFMI) tarts up their employment practices into a selling point is just part of the whole experience. You let it wash over you, and you go on. The cheese counter at Whole Foods has a lot to recommend it once you get past price, including a great selection, knowledgable staff, and an unending supply of samples.

My friend recommended a few Icelandic cheeses (the best of the batch was Hfingi, a soft cow's milk cheese not unlike a mild Brie). And he gave me a brochure to go along with it.

The brochure was written by Whole Foods, and had lots of information about Icelandic cheese, where by "information" I mean "marketing." The words "pure" and "unspoiled" appeared at least three times in each paragraph. (Incidentally, the CIA World Factbook entry for Iceland lists "water pollution from fertilizer runoff; inadequate wastewater treatment" as among their current environmental issues. But not to worry: surely it is pure and unspoiled fertilizer runoff.)

I put this brochure away and promptly forgot about it. There is, after all, nothing too unusual about featuring one country or another at a cheese counter. Cheese is an extremely varietal sort of food, and if you don't try cheeses from diverse places in the world, you're missing out on a lot.

The next time I was in Whole Foods, I encountered the lamb from Iceland. Here's a sample of their marketing:

Have you tried our Icelandic Lamb? Only available at Whole Foods Market, Icelandic Lamb is bred and raised in Iceland where they are free to roam the grassy hills and breathe pristine air.

Not only that, but each of the lambs is sung a beautiful lullabye as it is lovingly, gently slaughtered in an utterly cruelty-free environment. All of this can be yours for the low, low, low price of $18.99/pound.

Lamb. For $18.99/pound. Somewhere in Austin, Texas, a Whole Foods executive is laughing until he wets his pants.

It's not specifically the price that bothers me here. It's the contradiction inherent in the Whole Foods concept: a store that gives lip service to the "buy locally, support sustainable farming" movement, yet which flies in goods from around the world to supplant local alternatives when it suits their margin or marketing needs.

This weekend, at the last Farmer's Market in the Strip District, I bought some grass-fed lamb from Pucker Brush Farm, a farm near Indiana, PA. Their lamb is grass-fed; it tasted earthy, and herbal, and savoury, and delicious. It cost less than half what the Icelandic lamb at Whole Foods would have cost me. It was fresher, and of better quality, and the money went straight to a farmer, and there are no doubts or worries about the supply chain.

They're also pushing Skyr ("It's made with pro-biotic cultures passed down generation to generation in Iceland"). Skyr is Icelandic for "Cottage Cheese That Costs More Than The Stuff You Probably Should Have Bought" My assumption is that what has happened here is that Whole Foods has signed an agreement with the Icelandic equivalent of Archer-Daniels Midland. They get products at cut rates, they get to pimp the Icelandic connection for marketing juice (Pure! Unspoiled! Pristine! Virginal!), and they get higher margins.

I'm glad Whole Foods is here. It provides a great alternative to our local megachains, and they carry a number of products that I want in one convenient location. But in some ways, I find it more tiring to shop there, particularly when I wander near one of their obvious profit centers, such as the meat counter. I don't expect them to change their way of doing business radically, or to suddenly stop selling things that obviously make them a lot of money.

But please. Enough with Iceland. I'm begging you.

Additional Resources

  • Puckerbrush Farms has a web site. In addition to lamb, they also sell wool, textiles, and other cool stuff. They're good people. Buy stuff from them.
  • Related at Tea Leaves: How To Shop At Whole Foods.
  • Posted by peterb at November 21, 2005 04:45 PM | Bookmark This

I thought Skyr just made turtlenecks.

Posted by kim at November 21, 2005 07:14 PM

From the CIA Factbook entry on the United States of America:

"[some stuff about air pollution]; water pollution from runoff of pesticides and fertilizers; limited natural fresh water resources in much of the western part of the country require careful management; desertification"

Posted by Stewart Clamen at November 21, 2005 07:37 PM

Yes, but no one has ever tried to sell me Ohio Beef based on the idea that the happy cows are breathing the fresh, pure, pristine Ohio air.

Posted by peterb at November 21, 2005 07:43 PM

Did you see the Bourdain No Rez episode on Iceland?

These people have an entire festival based on rotting meat! Shark, buried, but not quite preserved. You have to wait until the rotting shark meat passes throught its toxic stage before you can eat it. Sheep's head, not just the cheeks, the whole jaw, bone and all. Things that are so putrid that you can not even touch them with your fingers for fear of reeking until next year. Never mind the animal privates in aspic.

Bet you will not find any of this at WF.

Oh, every talk to anyone that interviewed for a job a WF? Very cult like.

Posted by Amos the Poker Cat at November 21, 2005 10:28 PM

I am curious about the deals they make. I was shopping at a WF in North Carolina for a few years when suddenly they started carrying Utz and Yuengling. And a third PA product, I forget what. I was puzzled, and assumed they'd made some sort of bargain, but I do wonder how this works.

No brochures singing the praises of PA though.

Posted by zp at November 22, 2005 01:11 AM

Skyr is not cottage cheese, its more like yogurt but without any fat (and yes the germs used are unique). It is usually sold with enough sugar(or artifical sweetening) in it to rival any candy bar out there so the health aspect of this product is questionable.

About the lamb, the sheep are free roaming in the summer time (about 3 months in iceland) and eat what they find in the mountains, which most of the time is not grass but other herbs, berries and flowers. This makes the icelandinc lamb taste more like wild game, which many people just don't like and often mistake as poor quality.

The quoted CIA reports on iceland must be a bit dated, since the water problems in the west of iceland have been solved years ago, and I have never witnessed or heard about any fertilizer pollution (I was born 1973).

Yes I'm from Iceland and I don't like my country to be sold as the healthiest place on earth. Its a northern european/scandinavian culture with all the same problems as the rest (yea and some questionable eating habits from the past, which some people still keep out of some strange patriotism).

Posted by Sveinn R. Joelsson at November 29, 2005 08:12 AM

I don't get it. This is the Nth time you've complained about Whole Foods, and yet you keep returning like Helsinki Syndrome suffered (no doubt WF is working on shipping in Norwegian Blue parrots or cheese as we speak).

Posted by Dr. Click at November 30, 2005 04:45 PM

In case you've forgotten, the only other major option around these parts is the miserably bad Giant Eagle.

This is like suggesting "Gosh, you don't seem to be enjoying your head colds. Have you considered shooting yourself instead?"

Posted by Nat Lanza at November 30, 2005 08:20 PM

So, basically you're trashing on Icelandic lamb and skyr without ever having tried it. Sure, it's expensive. Stuff from Iceland tends to be. Credit the weak American dollar for a lot of that (it's dropped more than 40% against the Icelandic krnur in just over 3 years).

As an American living in Iceland, I do feel that the dairy and meat here is of a better quality than anything I ever bought in Boston, including at Whole Foods.

Posted by JB at December 8, 2005 04:27 PM

I'm not trashing Iceland. I'm trashing Whole Foods for pimping them, when there are superior local products.

See the difference?

If it will make you happy, I will go on record stating that I think it would be an absolute scandal if the Whole Foods in Reykjavik offered Pennsylvania Lamb, and no icelandic alternatives.

Posted by peterb at December 8, 2005 04:30 PM

There is no Whole Foods in Reykjavik and you can't get Pennsylvania Lamb in Iceland (or any other imported lamb for that matter). There are very strict rules on importing fresh meat to Iceland because there's hardly any disease in Icelandic livestock. Therefore it's not neccecary to use the myriad of drugs used in many other countries.

Most things produced in Iceland are expensive - the population is only around 300,000 - that's around 0.1% of the population of the US of A. Most farms are small so cost pr. "unit" is usually high, probably much higher than in the US. Add to that an unfavourable exchange rate for exports and you have very high prices for Icelandic products in the US.

The Icelandic sheep spends around 3 to 4 months roaming around in the highlands and the interior during summer. The farmers then round up the sheep early September, sort them out (each farmer takes his sheep home) and send them to the slaughter house. Most of the lambs slaughtered in the Autumn will have spent up to 75% of their life roaming around in the mountains where there are no pesticides or fertilizers - or people.

Water is not recycled in Iceland like many other nations are forced to do, it's fresh from the springs out of the tap. Many people think the water in Iceland is bad because until recently there was hardly any wastewater treatment. Wastewater treatment has been greatly improved in the past few years, but that's for the water that's then pumped into the sea!

I don't think it's right or even fair to say that Whole Foods is pimping Iceland. They're working with representatives from Icelandic farmers and I believe the farmers are getting a good deal. The worst part about this project is the fact that Icelandic farmers couldn't possibly meet the demand if more people in the US wanted to buy their products.

The prices are high for a reason and a purpose. It's relatively small quantities, transportation cost is high and so is the quality (too bad many people don't realize that because they're not used to it). It's what could be described as a niche market, you pay a premium and you get what you pay for.

Posted by TJ at December 15, 2005 06:03 PM

update: the whole foods in durham, nc now sells IC Light. go figure.

Posted by zp at January 26, 2006 10:55 AM

I'm an Icelander living in Boston USA, I have to say you seem completely clueless about the Icelandic products.

Skyr, is not cottage cheese, that was an ignorant statement. Skyr is a dairy product, delicious and creamy. One can adjust the sweetness of it oneself, by adding sugar or not. I for instance tend not to add much sugar, I like it the way it is.
Also, and extremely important, it is HORMONE FREE. If you only knew what the hormones do to the american population. Obesity is definitely due to hormonse. Just look at the progress of peoples weight and when hormones became a part of the product in the USA.

All produce from Iceland is hormone free!

I gained 30 lbs, when I arrived here, in 3 months. This is very common for most Europeans, this is due to us not being used to the hormones, not being able to digest/break it down in our bodies as those who've grown up with hormones.

Lamb, is probably one of the best in the world. The sheep roam around from late April till early October. Their diet consists of berries, herbs and 'lyng' The lamb therefore tastes much gamier than in any other country. It is known also to be juicy and tender, and the Icelander also knows how to smoke it with birch which is absolutely delicious. And I'm a vegetarian....I just remember growing up, my favorite eats were the Skyr and the lamb.

FYI - It has been studied that fish, such as haddock, cod, salmon etc. are known to have less mercury if they originate from the coast of Iceland. Reason is because the oceans are colder, so mercury does not florish in that environment. That said though, it is also known that the Icelandic fish is less poluted because dumping in the oceans is far less than in any other counry in the world.

Regarding water and pollution. I have to say as agrculture is NOT big in Iceland as in many other countries, water pollution is much less and the cia information is incorrect or oudated. I was born there in the 60's while still Iceland was still recieving the Marshall assistance after WWII. The only water pollution was created by the US Military when they spilled thousands of gallons of oil!

So, please get your facts straight before you judge. Only an ignorant person puts out statements without trying the products first.

But hey, you are indeed a part of the American population and my experience is that the american mind has not been taught to critizise, or analyze.

Posted by SB at January 28, 2006 11:35 AM

The worst thing about people from Iceland, of course, is that some of them have the Scandinavian sense of humor.

To address some of your points, in brief: to complain that I don't describe Skyr, the Icelandic curd product that nobody likes, in adequate detail is to miss the point of my article. The point is not how good or disgustingly inedible Skyr is, but that the only reason Whole Foods is carrying it is because they can impose a piratical markup on it.

Yes, hormones are bad. That's why you can (and should) buy plenty of American meat and dairy products that are hormone-free.

I apologize profusely for not realizing that all pollution that has ever touched Iceland's pristine shores is somehow the fault of the United States. Since it is well known that all Icelanders poop talcum powder and pee only the sweetest, purest spring water, I should have been able to figure this out on my own.

Iceland's fish products are, of course, renowned throughout the world, especially their superb and succulent whale meat. Whales from around the world flock to Iceland, when they are tired of life, to give themselves up willingly to Iceland's huge whaling fleet (known among the humpbacks as "gentle release havens.")

Oh, Iceland. How I have wronged you. Please forgive me.

Posted by peterb at January 28, 2006 12:10 PM


What a nice, mature response you have to SB. I guess it's your right to say whatever you want on your post, but please. You seem to have taken SB's comments quite personally. Not everyone thinks skyr is disgusting. It can be sweet and fulfilling, unlike the your non-fact-based, generalized criticism of all things foreign. Come on, "Icelanders poop talcum powder and pee only the sweetest, purest spring water"? Are you TRYING to start a flame war? Or you can you not help being an ass?

Bloggers like you make me ashamed to call myself a born-and-bred American.

Posted by Bevin at March 9, 2006 07:06 PM

Im really not sure I should be wasting my time making a comment to this, but I will anyway.

My girlfriend bought icelandic lamb meat at Whole Foods in West Hartford CT last fall and it was nowhere near the price you mentioned.At the same time they had American and New Zealand lamb and the Icelandic one was the cheapest. Thats not all I know for a fact, being Icelandic and reading the newspapers here that Whole Foods are buying the Kg for more than $10 FOB so they cant be making huge profits.

She was a bit bummed out that her Whole Foods branch wasnt carrying skyr, the product you mistake for being cheese, its not cheese for some absurd reason the US government demands of classifying it a such though to get more money in customs. Still youre getting the product at a similar price as we get it in Iceland. That bummes us out.

I did read that CIA fact thing recently and its ridiculus. Its a joke.

On your whale hunting comment. No nation in the world kills as many whales as you Americans do, you can look for the facts yourself.

By the way whale meat is delicious.

Posted by Ingimar at March 21, 2006 06:45 PM

> look for the facts yourself

How much does Iceland SUCK if it has an official whaling program, and yet manages to catch FEWER whales than the US?

But I digress. The real point is that you should have looked at the facts yourself. If you look at the catch tables from the International Whaling Commission:

the US ranks *fourth* (third on a good year) behind Japan, Denmark, and Russia. Once you exclude the aboriginal catch, the US has caught the grand total of *zero* whales each year since the commercial whaling moratorium took effect in 1986.

Now, would you like a side of crow with that whale?

Posted by Dr. Click at March 21, 2006 09:31 PM

We havent been doing commercial whale hunting since the late 1980s. The last two years we have been hunting 38 animals a year for scientific purposes. You can call that sucking at it if it makes you feel better.

So I was wrong about The Us ranking as the number one whale hunting nation. Boohoo. I dont care if the whale hunting Americans do is for aboriginals or not. If you have to be leading in banning other nations to hunt whales stop doing it yourselfs. Im sure those people can find something else to do.

The whale stock in Icelandic waters is not and hasnt been endangered since the early 1920s when foreign whale hunters were forced to leave and the government established a quota that remained until the whale hunting ban to protect the population.

Posted by Ingimar at March 22, 2006 01:15 PM

Hi. Please make up your mind if you're arguing "Well, your mother is a dirty whore, too" or "Hey, being a dirty whore isn't a bad thing!"



Posted by peterb at March 22, 2006 01:28 PM

Your point being?

Posted by ingimar at March 22, 2006 01:41 PM

You're simultaneously arguing that Iceland's whaling isn't bad, but that the US whales much much more.

It's incoherent and dumb.

Either whaling is bad, in which case Iceland's whaling is bad too, or whaling is good, in which case it doesn't matter how much the US whales. Make up your mind.

This is also completely unrelated to Whole Foods in any way other than that you're apparently so overtaken by nationalistic pride that you feel the need to yell at strangers online about supermarket marketing.

Posted by Nat at March 22, 2006 04:31 PM

No Im not saying that Iceland hunting whales is good and the US doing it is bad, Im just pointing out that the US does it too a fact overlooked by way to many Americans. At the same time Id say I was saying mind your own business.

While the actual blog was about Whole Foods another commenter had to bring up the whaling thing as a point of argument in how unenvironmental we are. And Peterb is quite possibly only accurate about the branch he does his shopping at. At least his statement is not accurate when it comes to the West Hartford CT branch. They also had American and New Zealand lamb meat in their meat counter at the time they had the Icelandic one. He also makes a statement about Whole Foods carrying the icelandic products to make higher marginal profits. He doesnt know that he just claims they do and as I point out hes wrong.

I cant see how you can see that kind of a comment as something that makes me overtaken by nationalistic pride, I was defending Whole Foods not Iceland. As Ive spent a lot of time in the US lately and I do my shopping in Whole Foods when Im there (I have tried other supermarkets) and its by far the nicest place to do that, including Icelandic supermarkets.

Posted by ingimar at March 22, 2006 05:40 PM

It's the rudeness and zealous jingoism that are so off-putting. My main point is this: Peter, your article started off as useful insight into American supermarkets, but you lost me and started a "let's wave our country's flag" posting war with comments like those in your January 28th post. Sure, you're trying to say that "I'm not trashing Iceland...I'm trashing Whole Foods for pimping them," but the sarcasm really hurt your argument.

I came back to the site to see if there was any reasonable response, but all I saw was more mudslinging. Tough luck, huh?

Posted by Bevin at March 31, 2006 01:27 PM

I have to disagree with everything you (PeterB) said, mainly about the lovely Icelandic delicacy known as Skyr. You have clearly never tasted it, as you call it, "Cottage Cheese That Costs More Than The Stuff You Probably Should Have Bought" because it is in fact NOTHING like cottage cheese.
On the contrary, it is more like a thick yogurt (think Yoplait 'custard style,' except thicker). I just came back from a trip to Iceland where Skyr is ubiquitous. It is a wonderful low fat treat that is great for breakfast or as a desert.
My point is that Skyr kept me alive on my trip through Iceland, seeing as it was cheap there and I am a poor college student on a shoe string budget. Yes, it will be more expensive here, but I will pay top dollar for it. It is a delightful food product with no equivalent in North American cuisine. Please try the product that you rant about before incorrectly identifying it for everyone else on this forum. Thanks.

P.S. I agree with some of the other posts by Americans. Your lack of research and analysis makes me ashamed to be born and raised here. On another note, I loved Iceland very much. It was the most beautiful place that I have ever visited. I fulfilled a dream that began when I was 12 years old, and I am saving to go back as soon as I can.
I am also writing a book for my senior thesis about my travels in Iceland/research that I have been doing on Icelandic culture (I am an English major, Sociology minor, so this project works for me! :) If any Icelanders on this board can help me out with historical facts, etc, please let me know.

Posted by Alex at August 8, 2006 07:57 PM

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