Greece Cheesed Off About Icelandic Feta

MS Iceland Dairies will no longer be selling cheese branded as ‘feta,’ following a complaint made to the European Parliament by Greek MP Emmanouil Fragkos, RÚV reports. Greece holds protected designation of origin (PDO) rights to feta, meaning that it is the only country in Europe that can claim to sell this product.

In April, Emmanouil Fragkos made a formal request to the European Parliament that MS Dairies stop branding various cheese products as feta. He noted that feta is a specific, local Greek speciality; to carry the name feta, a cheese must be made from Greek goat or sheep’s milk, grazing along Greek rivers, and that there are already various regulations in place that dictate that similar kinds of cheese produced elsewhere cannot be called ‘feta.’ (Vermouth, champagne, stilton cheese, and prosciutto di Parma are all examples of famous beverages and foodstuffs that have PDO protection.)

PDO is one of the EU’s “quality schemes,” which aim “at protecting the names of specific products to promote their unique characteristics, linked to their geographical origin as well as traditional know-how,” explains the European Commission website. “Recognised as intellectual property, geographical indications play an increasingly important role in trade negotiations between the EU and other countries.” Iceland is not a member of the EU, but it is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), which means that it is subject to “the laws of the single market (except for agriculture and fisheries laws).” Indeed, Iceland entered into an agreement with the European Union regarding PDO protections on May 1, 2016, and the European Commission recognized this when responding to Fragkos’ complaint.

MS Dairies sells numerous products branded as feta, including whole blocks of crumbly, white cheese and oil-marinated jars of salty white cheese curds, all of which resemble the Greek speciality. (MS Dairies also sells ‘Greek yoghurt’ but this wasn’t a subject of the official complaint.)

Communications director Sunna Gunnars Marteinsdóttir says that MS intends to change the names of its products promptly. In lieu of feta, the names ‘salatostur’ (‘salad cheese’) and ‘veisluostur’ (‘party/feast cheese’) will be used.

Icelandic Skyr Cheaper Abroad Than in Iceland

Ísey brand skyr is cheaper in grocery stores in Finland and Britain than it is in Iceland, Vísir reports. But although some Icelandic consumers are crying foul, the Icelandic dairy cooperative MS Dairies says that there are several perfectly good reasons for this price discrepancy, not least that skyr sold abroad is not actually made in Iceland, but rather produced at a lower cost in Jutland, Denmark and then exported to other countries.

“I can buy Ísey skyr in Finland for 40% cheaper”

Ísey skyr is exported widely and is available throughout Europe, as well as in the United States and Japan. A number of frustrated Icelanders have shared photos on social media of cheaper Ísey shelf prices in other countries.

“Is there any reason that it’s cheaper to buy Icelandic skyr in England than in Iceland?” asked lawyer María Rún Bjarnadóttir in a Facebook post this spring showing 170 grams [5.9 ounces] of skyr for sale at 99 pence—the equivalent of ISK 150 [$1.20; €1.09]. “I bought Rioja red wine for £5 at the same time. But of course we have to have restrictions on competition among dairy products and ban the sale of alcohol in grocery stores in Iceland. Of course.”

Author Þórdís Gísladóttir made a similar observation in Finland earlier this month. “I can buy Ísey skyr in Finland for 40% cheaper than in Iceland,” she tweeted. At €0.99, skyr sold in Finnish grocery stores would come out to roughly ISK 137 [$1.09].

By comparison, the same size tub of skyr sold in Icelandic grocery stores goes for ISK 175 [$1.40; €1.27] at Bónus, ISK 178 [$1.43; €1.29] at Krónan, and ISK 189 [$1.51; €1.37] at Nettó.

Skyr sold abroad “not connected to Icelandic agriculture”

When price comparing, however, Sunna Gunnars Marteinsdóttir, Communications Director for MS Dairies, urges Icelanders to keep in mind that MS sells its products wholesale and that food prices are determined by the free market in Iceland and elsewhere.

Moreover, she said, the skyr sold in the UK and Finland is produced in Denmark and as such is “not connected to Icelandic agriculture” as she said is made out in the aforementioned social media posts.

Sunna also said that although there are price discrepancies, Ísey skyr sold in Iceland and abroad is still all in the same general price range. As an example, she noted that skyr sold in Finland is priced anywhere from ISK 136 [$1.09; €0.98] to ISK 275 [$2.20; €1.99], depending on what kind is purchased. Similarly, she said, skyr sold in Iceland ranges from ISK 125 [$1.00; €0.91] to ISK 309 [$2.48; €2.24] in price.

She also noted that the Icelandic dairy industry is a small one, and necessarily less efficient than larger operations abroad. MS Dairies has an annual turnover of ISK 28 billion [$224 million; €203 million], as compared to other (unspecified) producers that have a turnover equivalent to ISK 500 – 2,000 billion [$4.10 billion – $16.43 billion; €3.62 billion – €16.04 billion].

Other factors to consider

The SA Confederation of Icelandic Enterprise also weighed in, saying that other factors need to be taken into account when making price comparisons. Purchasing power makes a big difference, SA argued, as well as how long Icelanders have to work to pay for monthly groceries.

“According to information from OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development], average hourly pay after income tax was 55% higher in Iceland than in Finland and the prices of food and beverages were 30% higher according to information from the EU Statistics Office,” read an SA assessment from the beginning of the year. The assessment concludes that purchasing power in Iceland is 20% higher than it is in Finland.

Based on these figures, it took Icelanders an average of eight hours to earn enough to cover their monthly food costs, versus the 9.5 hours it took Finnish people to buy the same amount of food.