Bjˆrky Had a Little Lamb

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 Hˆf ingi, 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.

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