Rows of small circular tubs in an array of colours are a familiar sight to visitors who stop off at an Icelandic supermarket and head straight to the dairy refrigerator. Despite the fact that Iceland’s fabled skyr is older than the sagas (in Grettir’s Saga, Auðunn hurls a bag of skyr at his adversary Grettir the Strong), the fresh acid-set cheese gorged ad nauseam by indulgent new arrivals has no formal status as a “product of Iceland” anywhere in the world. That, however, could soon change, if dairy industry leaders have their way.
A new report commissioned by Iceland’s Association of Dairy and Meat Producers (“Samtök mjólkur- og kjötvinnslufyrirtækja,” SMK) is urging the Icelandic government to set in motion an agreement with the European Union that could see skyr given “protected geographical indication” status, labelling the product as Iceland-made and preventing foreign imitators from using the “skyr” name.
The report, authored by Einar Karl Haraldsson, founding editor of Fréttablaðið and current chair of Inspired By Iceland, argues that geographical protected status would strengthen exports whilst boosting domestic production by establishing Iceland-made skyr as the gold standard product.
Skyr is gaining popularity abroad, especially in other Nordic countries, with exports bringing millions of krónur back to producers every year, but Einar says foreign production compromises the integrity of the Icelandic brand name. “The name ‘skyr’ could have the same fate as ‘Geysir’ or other Icelandic names that become generic, general names used falsely for other products,” he states.
He cites Parmesan cheese as a key example, which is trademarked in Italy, manufactured in a limited area in the north of the country and therefore labelled with protected designation of origin status in the European Union. “Italian farmers had to fight hard for this,” he adds. “Elsewhere, in Canada or the USA for example, imitations can still be made.”
Brussels insists that an agreement on protected status must be reached as part of Iceland’s prospective entry to the European Union; however it is not tied to the country’s membership. Norway, like Iceland, is not a member of the EU, but it has nonetheless reached a special agreement, whereby it recognises the geographical status of over a thousand products in return for nineteen of its products being protected across the continent, including Hardanger fruits, stockfish and Norwegian wild sheep.
“Norway has a special agreement which means EU products can’t be imitated, and nor can theirs in Europe,” Einar says. “A Norwegian firm wouldn’t be able to produce a Parma ham imitation and call it the real thing.”
Some efforts across Europe to secure protected status have not been met with success. Manufacturers in the English West Country attempted to guarantee the geographical status of Cheddar cheese, which takes its name from a village in Somerset. As the name has long been widely outside the region, only cheddar produced from local milk in the area with the name ‘West Country Farmhouse Cheddar’ carries protected designation of origin. Einar concedes that Iceland-made skyr may face the same fate, forced to carry the title ‘Icelandic Skyr’ if it is to be enjoy protected designation of origin status.
At the same time, he says there is a risk that preventing foreign producers from using the name ‘skyr’ could limit its ability to permeate markets outside Iceland. Although Einar says this might be a concern for producers, he believes exporters benefit by capturing the attention of consumers abroad with recognised specialities.
And ultimately Einar insists that saving our skyr is worth the effort: “Consumers like to buy produce that has a genuine local connection. Today many people tend to prefer original authentic local fare to goods that are mass-produced by big global corporations. And this will benefit farmers back in Iceland too.”
Sigurgeir Þorgeirsson of Iceland’s Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture says that a working group is being formed to prepare legislation to negotiate terms with the EU. “The working group will first examine the pros and cons. If the outcome is positive as we expect, a bill will be presented to Parliament,” he explains. “The working group will propose the form of legislation, but they will look carefully at existing EU regulations in crafting an Icelandic law.”
In addition to skyr, Icelandic lamb and butter may also secure protected status as a product of Iceland. The red, white and blue of the Icelandic standard could be a fixture on produce down every aisle in the supermarkets of Reykjavík before long.