2023 in Review: Culture

Diljá Pétursdóttir iceland eurovision

As the year draws to a close, Iceland Review brings you a summary of the biggest stories in community, culture, and nature in 2023. Here are some of the biggest culture-related stories from the year.

Laufey Sets New Jazz Standard

It’s been a big year for Icelandic musician Laufey. In September, Laufey’s sophomore album, Bewitched, set a record for the most streams in the jazz category on Spotify on its day of release, accumulating 5.7 million streams. The previous record was held by Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett’s 2021 album Love for Sale, which received 1.1 million streams on its first day. Bewitched features the British Philharmonic Orchestra on two of its tracks and consists mostly of original compositions, along with one cover song.

On November 10, Laufey released two Christmas songs in collaboration with Norah Jones, a cover of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and an original composition entitled Better Than Snow. Both of the songs were recorded in a single take.

 On the same day that the duets with Norah Jones were released, Laufey announced to the crowd at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas, that she had received her first Grammy nomination (for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album): “I especially love Austin now because this will forever be the city where I found out that I received a Grammy nomination,” Laufey remarked.

Laufey is the artistic mononym of Icelander Laufey Lín Jónsdóttir. A former cello soloist and talent show finalist, Laufey graduated from Berklee College of Music. She released her debut EP, Typical of Me, in 2021.

Power Outage: Diljá Misses Out on Eurovision Finals

Earlier this year, Diljá Pétursdóttir was chosen to represent Iceland in the 67th annual Eurovision Song Contest. Diljá, a long-time Eurovision fan, went on to perform her energetic ballad, aptly named Power (co-written by Pálmi Ragnar Ásgeirsson), during the second semi-final night of the Eurovision Song Contest. It took place in Liverpool on May 11, and ten entries advanced to the final. Despite Diljá’s performance receiving favourable reviews from Icelanders, she did not advance to the finals.

Read More: Power Player (Brief Profile of Diljá Pétursdóttir in Iceland Review)

Diljá spoke to Eurovision commentator Sigurður Gunnarsson for the National Broadcaster (RÚV) following her performance. Despite failing to qualify, she was pleased with her performance: “It went amazingly well.”

Icelandic Lamb Receives Protected Status

In March, the European Commission approved the first-ever Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) from Iceland for Icelandic lamb (ice. Íslenskt lambakjöt). The product name is applied to the meat from purebred Icelandic lambs, which have been born, raised, and slaughtered on the island of Iceland. The designation is the same type granted to champagne and means that no product that does not fulfil the above conditions can be labelled as Icelandic lamb.

Read More: Labour of Love (A Profile of a Young Farmer)

“Sheep farming has a long and rich cultural tradition in Iceland,” a notice from the European Commission read. “The characteristics of ‘Íslenskt lambakjöt’ first and foremost consists [sic] of a high degree of tenderness and gamey taste, due to the fact that lambs roam freely in demarcated wild rangelands and grow in the wild, natural surroundings of Iceland, where they feed on grass and other plants. The long tradition of sheep farming passing down generations on the island has led to high standards of flock management and grazing methods.”

Trouble at the Opera

On Saturday, March 3, the Icelandic Opera premiered its production of Madame Butterfly, authored by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini and first performed publicly in 1904. Three days after the premiere, Laura Liu, a Chinese-American violinist for the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, published a post on Facebook in which she accused individuals involved in the production of yellowface (i.e. where a non-Asian performer uses makeup to make their skin look yellow in order to portray an Asian character). Liu shared pictures of the performers, who were shown wearing makeup, including painted-on black eyebrows and black wigs: 

“Are we bringing yellowface back, Iceland?” Liu asked. “Furthermore, Madame Butterfly is Japanese. Those are Chinese characters. ‘All look [the] same,’ right? It’s disturbing to have to repeat this: yellowing up is the same as blacking up. When you wear another race as your costume that’s called dehumanisation. Do better.”

On March 9, Steinunn Birna Ragnarsdóttir, Director of the Icelandic Opera, addressed accusations of racism and cultural appropriation in an interview with the radio programme Reykjavík Síðdegis. 

Steinunn iterated some of the points made by her colleague Michiel Dijkema: “I was very clear about not using yellowface in this production,” Steinunn stated, adding that the producers had taken “different routes” to make the production believable, Kabuki makeup, for example.

When asked what she made of the accusations, Steinunn replied: “We celebrate this discussion and listen with an open mind to these different perspectives.”

On Saturday, March 11, Steinunn Birna was interviewed by the nightly news, in which she stated that a few minor changes would be made: “We had a good meeting yesterday with the performers, and the director, where we listened to their experience. We decided that we would tone down the makeup. Even though we believed that we had not been guilty of yellowface, we decided to remove painted-on, slanted eyebrows and wigs, for such a thing would not serve to detract from the overall performance. There are two guidelines that I follow: that my people feel good, and making a good show even better. 

Háskólabíó Movie Theatre Shuttered

The Icelandic company Sena cancelled its contract for the operation of a cinema in the Háskólabíó theatre as as of July 1 of this year. Konstantín Mikaelsson, Manager of Sena’s Film Division, told the media that Sena’s decision was informed by increased consumer demands for facilities and declining attendance.

Sena has managed the operation of Háskólabíó since 2007, but Háskólbíó’s history stretches back to the year 1961. During the first decades, the theatre featured a single large auditorium. Smaller auditoriums were later added. The building was the main concert hall of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra for years until the Harpa Music and Conference Hall was put into use in 2011.

In addition to film screenings, Háskólabíó has been the venue for university classes, concerts, and various events. In June, Guðmundur R. Jónsson, Director of Administration of the University of Iceland, told the media that the university would likely continue to use the building for concerts, conferences, meetings, and teaching.

Icelandic Lamb Receives Protected Designation of Origin Within EU

lambakjöt lamb Páll Stefánsson

The European Commission approved the first ever Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) from Iceland today for Icelandic lamb (ice. Íslenskt lambakjöt). The product name is applied to the meat from purebred Icelandic lambs, which have been born, raised, and slaughtered on the island of Iceland. The designation is the same type granted to champagne, and means that no product that does not fulfil the above conditions can be labelled as Icelandic lamb.

“Sheep farming has a long and rich cultural tradition in Iceland,” a notice from the European Commission reads. “The characteristics of ‘Íslenskt lambakjöt’ first and foremost consists [sic] of a high degree of tenderness and gamey taste, due to the fact that lambs roam freely in demarcated wild rangelands and grow in the wild, natural surroundings of Iceland, where they feed on grass and other plants. The long tradition of sheep farming passing down generations on the island has led to high standards of flock management and grazing methods.”

Sheep farming in Iceland stretches back over one millennium, to the settlement period. The number of sheep in the country peaked in 1978 at over 890,000, but dropped to 432,780 in 2018, the lowest number recorded since 1948. Consumption of lamb has dropped significantly in Iceland since the early 1980s but has remained relatively steady in recent years, at around 20 kilos per inhabitant per year. Icelandic lamb has also been exported to new markets in recent years, including China. The newly-bestowed Protected Designation of Origin may help Icelandic lamb on foreign markets in the coming years.

Icelandic lamb holds a similar protected designation within Iceland, as do hand-knitted Icelandic sweaters and perhaps soon, Icelandic whisky.

Slaughtering Season Off to Uncertain Start

Icelandic sheep

The slaughtering season has begun in Sauðarkrókur in Northwest Iceland, RÚV reports, but uncertainty about meat prices has many farmers concerned about their earnings in the coming months.

Those who hold slaughtering licenses set the prices at which meat will be bought from producers each season. But although the slaughtering season is underway or about to begin in most places, license holders still have not announced what purchase prices will be this year. At the beginning of August, the National Association of Sheep Farmers demanded an increase of 132 krónur [$0.96; €0.81] per kilo on last year’s prices, which averaged ISK 600 [$4.35; €3.86] a kilo. Lamb and mutton prices in Iceland have not kept pace with those on the international market and are, in fact, the lowest in Europe. Slaughter license holders are not required to abide by a set reference price but are instead, free to set prices as they see fit at all stages.

“There’s a great deal of uncertainty about this because of COVID,” remarks Unnsteinn Snorri Snorrason, director of the National Association of Sheep Farmers. This is, he continues, both a function of uncertainty about the status of the market as well as how the slaughtering season will fare with staffing shortages in the industry.

Slaughterhouses have predominantly been staffed by foreign workers in recent years, but bringing in workers from abroad is more difficult now during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Finding Icelandic workers for slaughterhouses has proved equally difficult. Thus, these staffing shortages could easily delay the slaughter this year.

See Also: Without Foreign Workers, Slaughterhouses Face Staffing Shortages

“I think people are operating on the assumption that things won’t be as efficient as usual and maybe it’s for the best that people are taking longer,” Unnstein says. “It’s necessary to train staff and get a routine in place … But we don’t have as many of the key people needed to make this happen as we usually do.”

Unnsteinn says that the lamb stock is essentially what it was last year, and although there are fewer tourists coming to the country right now, he doesn’t see this as a reason for lamb production to contract any further than it already has.

“Maybe it’s not a direct result of [fewer tourists], but of course, this has an effect on the market in some way,” he explains. “We also have an opportunity to increase exports, but first and foremost, we need to see higher meat prices. If we don’t see those, then we won’t see an increase in production—rather, we’ll see a contraction in production across the board.”

Still, there is enough demand for prime cuts of lamb on the domestic market, Unnsteinn asserts, “[e]specially now that we’ve considerably reduced production. Just looking at lamb meat, we’ve cut down by some 1100 tons in just a few years. Our biggest market is the domestic one and it has been fairly stable comparatively. We’re getting good results from the foreign markets we’re building, though. And you can’t forget that part of what we’re exporting are inexpensive cuts that we don’t have a market for here in Iceland.”

Without Foreign Workers, Slaughterhouses Face Staffing Shortages

icelandic sheep

Despite rising unemployment throughout Iceland, slaughterhouses throughout the country are having trouble staffing their facilities in advance of the annual slaughtering season, RÚV reports. Slaughterhouses have predominantly been staffed by foreign workers in recent years, but bringing in workers from abroad is more difficult now during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Iceland’s slaughtering season generally begins in early September and accordingly, slaughterhouses begin advertising for staff during the summer. Slauturfélag Suðurlands, which runs the largest abattoir in Iceland, expects that they will need to extend their season of operation; they are usually staffed by a large group of professional butchers from New Zealand during the slaughtering season but those workers cannot travel to Iceland this year. CEO Steinþór Skúlason says that it is proving difficult to find Icelanders to do this work.

Ágúst Torfi Hauksson, the operations manager at a slaughterhouse in Húsavík, North Iceland is experiencing similar staffing difficulties. He says 35 employees are still needed at his facility. He’d hoped that people who had been laid off from their jobs at the silicon plant in Bakki would apply and indeed, all nine of the former silicon plant employees who have applied for work at the Húsavík slaughterhouse have been given jobs. But that’s only nine applications from a total of 80 workers who lost their jobs.

Fjallalamb in Kópasker, Northeast Iceland still needs 20 employees. “It’s going a lot slower than in previous years because of this COVID situation,” remarked operations manager Víkingur Björnsson. “What I’m trying to do now, as best I can, is to get Icelanders or people who live in Iceland.” Víkingur hasn’t had much luck with this yet, however. “I’m a little surprised. There’s a fair amount of unemployment in the country. This is, of course, not long-term [work], just six weeks, but still.”

Iceland to Permit Limited Home Slaughter This Fall

Icelandic sheep

Home slaughter of lambs will be permitted in Iceland this fall as a pilot project, RÚV reports. Meat from the lambs will be tested to ensure quality and safety standards are met. The project is expected to support innovation in the sheep farming industry and help farmers hold on to more of the profits from their lamb.

The pilot project is a collaboration between the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, the National Association of Sheep Farmers (Landssamtak sauðfjárbænda), and the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST). Sheep farmers in Iceland are only permitted to slaughter and butcher lambs at home for their own consumption – any lamb that will be sold must be sent to a slaughterhouse. If the farmers then want to sell the meat themselves, they must pay a fee to do so.

Þröstur Heiðar Erlingsson, a sheep farmer in Skagafjörður, North Iceland, is supportive of the project. According to Þröstur, home slaughtering produces better quality meat, as the process is slower and the meat has more time to hang and become tender than in an industrial slaughterhouse. When farmers take their meat home from a slaughterhouse, they also receive neither the skin nor the offal. “We could make ourselves a lot more food out of this if we got to sell it ourselves and process it ourselves,” he stated.

Iceland’s Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Kristján Þór Júlíusson has expressed support for the initiative. The Ministry is ensuring home slaughter regulation can comply with international agreements that Iceland is party to.

Icelandic Lamb Exported to China for the First Time

Icelandic lamb

The first shipment of Icelandic lamb was exported to China this week, RÚV reports. Björn Víkingur Björnsson, CEO of Fjallalamb Ltd, says the meat was well received, which bodes well for increased export opportunities in the near future.

Icelandic lamb producer Fjallalamb is the first and, so far, only company to have been granted a license to export lamb to China and has been working to get its product onto the Chinese market for two years, ever since the two countries revised the terms of their free trade agreement in 2018. Per the revised terms, exported lamb must receive a health certification; exported meat may only come from lambs under six months of age that were born and bred in scrapie-free regions. Slaughterhouses, meat packing centres, and storage centres where the meat is processed or held must also be located in scrapie-free regions. Fjallalamb is currently the only Icelandic lamb producer to fulfil these requirements.

Fjallalamb’s first test shipment contained around 20 tonnes of lamb. Björn Víkingur says that it took a long time to find companies that could connect Fjallalamb with the market it’s seeking to enter in China, namely “high-class restaurants.”

The CEO continued that his company’s Chinese customers “are extremely interested – they’ve tasted the meat and want to make an ongoing agreement.”

At the time that Fjallalamb received its export license, Björn Víkingur said that it was not possible for the company to sell all its product on the Icelandic market. In order to meet demand in China, however, it’s likely that the company will need to increase its production, although it’s unclear at this time by just how much. “If it works out that farmers can increase production and if, as I think is likely, China wants more in the fall if all goes well, then this could be a promising situation.”

E. Coli Found in Icelandic Meat

E. coli was found in 30% of lamb samples and 11.5% of beef samples in a test carried out by the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST). The particular strain discovered is known as STEC, or shiga-toxin producing E. coli. This is the first time lamb and beef have been screened for STEC in Iceland.

The testing was carried out on around 600 samples of lamb, beef, pork, and chicken of both Icelandic and foreign origin between March and December 2018. The purpose of the testing was to determine the prevalence of pathogenic micro-organisms in products when they reach the consumer, and for this reason the samples were taken from shops.

Campylobacter and salmonella were not detected in pork or chicken samples, with the exception of a single sample of pork from Spain. MAST attributes this to improved preventative measures in slaughterhouses.

Strain can cause illness

Shiga-toxin producing E. coli is a toxigenic species of E. coli. STEC can cause serious illness in humans. Common symptoms include diarrhoea, but contraction of the bacteria can also lead to a type of kidney damage known as HUS (Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome). People can contract STEC through contaminated food or water, direct contact with infected animals, or from an environment contaminated by infected animals’ feces.

Part of natural flora

The results of the study indicate that STEC is part of the natural microbial flora of Icelandic cattle and sheep. “It is clear that STEC must be studied more closely in meat and preventative measures in slaughterhouses and meat processing must be intensified to reduce the likelihood that STEC enters meat,” reads MAST’s press release on the findings. “The cleanliness of the livestock is also important here, and it is therefore necessary to prevent the slaughtering of unclean livestock in slaughterhouses.”

Consumer prevention

MAST points to several ways consumers can reduce the risk of infection from salmonella, campylobacter, and E. coli, including cooking meat all the way through and taking care to avoid cross-contamination. Most E. coli is found on the surface of meat, and therefore is killed by frying or grilling, but when meat is ground, the bacteria is distributed throughout. Therefore, hamburgers and other types of ground meat should be cooked through.

Icelandic Lamb Exported to China This Fall

Icelandic lamb

Icelandic lamb producer Fjallalamb has been granted a licence to export lamb to China, RÚV reports. It is the first and only company to have received such a licence. Björn Víkingur Björnsson, Fjallalamb’s CEO, says he’s happy about the development, though Iceland will remain the company’s main market.

The company is licensed to begin export with the slaughter season this fall. Fjallalamb has been in talks with several interested buyers, but has yet to discuss the amount of product exported or the price. According to Björn, it’s not possible for Fjallalamb to sell all of their product on the Icelandic market, so the export licence is a welcome change. He adds, however, that he places importance on organising the export wisely and looking to the future.

Lamb needs to be from scrapie-free area

A health certification on Icelandic lamb is part of the requirements put forth in a trade agreement made between Iceland and China last fall. The exported meat may only come from lambs under six months of age which are born and bred in scrapie-free regions. Slaughterhouses, meat packing centres, and storage centres where the meat is processed or held must also be located in scrapie-free regions.

More producers could start export

Hjalti Andrason of the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority says four other slaughterhouses fulfil the health requirements for exporting lamb to China, and a fifth will do so next year. Lamb lovers in China can likely look forward to increased availability of the tasty product.

Number of Sheep in Iceland Decreases Considerably

Icelandic sheep

The number of sheep in Iceland has decreased by around 42,000 since 2016, when the animals numbered 474,704, RÚV reports. In 2018 there were just 432,740 in the country, the lowest number recorded since 1948. Guðfinna Harpa Árnadóttir, chairperson of the Association of Icelandic Sheep Farmers, says the decrease can be largely attributed to the low price of sheep products.

“Farm operation doesn’t balance out, and people have to reduce the number of sheep because of that,” Guðfinna stated. She says the cost of production is much higher than what sheep farmers get paid for their products, and farm incomes have been decreasing. In 2016, product prices fell by 10%, falling by another 35% in 2017. Prices have been fairly steady since that year.

Sheep numbers peaked in 1978 at over 890,000. Guðfinna says sheep numbers are likely to keep falling in the country unless the price of sheep products rises.

Organic Lamb Meat to be Exported

sheep, round-up, réttir,

Organically certified sheep farmers in Iceland are looking to sell their meat to European markets, Bændablaðið reports.

Sale of lamb meat has been steadily declining in Iceland over the last few years, causing many farmers to stop their production and turn to other sources of revenue. At least six sheep farms in Iceland are certified organic and now those are looking to sell their lamb meat to Europe.

Andrés Vilhjálmson, head of export for Icelandic Lamb has been in contact with potential buyers overseas and is confident the deals will go through. According to Andrés, the transaction has been delayed due to the fact that, up until this point, organic lamb meat hasn’t been especially distinguished from regular lamb at the pertaining product facilities. After the next slaughter season, however, organic lamb will be separated as such and shipment to Europe can begin.

“Next season we plan to send most if not all organically certified lamb meat out of the country,” Andrés says, “which is around 20 tons of meat. We can expect organic lamb meat to command up to 15 to 20 percent higher prices in the markets we’re pursuing than regular lamb meat. A big part of that money would go straight to the sheep farmers.”

“This is hugely important for everybody, but especially for us organic sheep farmers, of course,” says Halla Steinólfsdóttir, farmer from Ytri-Fagridalur. “Our stubbornness and belief in the organic lifestyle is paying off,” she adds, urging the Icelandic government and the Farmers Association of Iceland to pay more attention to organically certified produce in their policy making and marketing in the future.