Grocery stores in Norway received some small shipments of butter on Monday from dairy cooperative Tine, but supplies weren’t expected to last long. Meanwhile, butter has taken on a new role as a gift item, a premium in sales campaigns and a product for smugglers.
A Russian man living in Germany, for example, was caught at the border at Svinesund over the weekend as he tried to smuggle 90 kilos (198 pounds) of butter into Norway. Customs inspectors found the butter in his vehicle and claimed the goods hadn’t been declared.
“He said he was going to deliver it somewhere,” Wenche Fredriksen of the customs division for eastern Norway told newspaper VG. Customs confiscated all 90 kilos.
Norway’s ongoing butter shortage has launched what once was an ordinary staple in the grocery stories into an entirely new role. So desperate are some people to acquire butter (called smør in Norwegian and roughly pronounced “smurr”) that a few websites are peddling it at prices up to NOK 600 for a half kilo (roughly USD 109 per pound).
In western Norway, the local newspaper at Firda was offering a half-kilo pack of butter as a bonus for those who bought a 10-month gift subscription to Firda Posten. Other ambitious ventures involved a group of teenagers on Norway’s southern coast, who got hold of some butter and started auctioning it online, with proceeds going towards paying for their graduation party (russefest) next spring.
Another seller who claimed to have four half-kilo packages of butter when store shelves were bare all over the country last week was offering them for NOK 1,000, or NOK 250 each.
Food safety officials at the state agency Mattilsynet were warning consumers against buying butter from strangers. “Food should be bought from professionals under secure conditions,” Atle Wold of Mattilsynet told news bureau NTB. Tine, predictably, also warned against buying “black market butter,” saying they recommended against purchases via websites.
Many hold Tine responsible for the butter shortage, through poor planning and failure to carry out their role as so-called “market regulator” in Norway. Countless commentators claim Tine has been arrogant in its reluctance to admit much blame, preferring instead to emphasize higher demand for butter because of a low-carbo diet fad in recent months. That’s just been part of the problem, given signs of reduced production several months ago. Dairy farmers themselves have claimed that Tine, which controls 90 percent of the butter market in Norway, waited much too long to ask for tariff reductions, so butter could be imported, and to drop punitive fees on farmers who produce too much milk used for butter-making.
Synnøve Finden, Tine’s only sizeable rival, managed to secure imports from Belgium more quickly than Tine but the Belgian butter has been hard to find as well. State authorities did relax other regulations that all food items sold in Norway must be packaged in the Norwegian language. Instead, retailers will be allowed to stock foreign butter on the shelves in their original packaging, as long as a sign is posted nearby, in Norwegian, translating the contents.
The butter shortage is expected to continue through the end of the year, and may leave Norwegians re-thinking their protectionist policies aimed at preserving local agriculture and keeping cheaper imports out of Norway. In this case, the policies clearly have backfired, at the height of the Christmas baking season.
Meanwhile, one Danish producer of butter took pity on his northern neighbors and cleared customs with 4,000 packages of Danish butter that he handed out for free in Oslo and Kristiansand. Some of it was also donated to a local soup kitchen called Fattighuset (literally, The Poor House).
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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