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Iceland Is Running Out of Meat

Iceland's slaughterhouses and meatpacking facilities are required to get frequent vet inspections—but with the nation's veterinarians currently on strike, a meat apocalypse looms.
Foto von moohaha via Flickr

When Iceland's starchy-sounding Association of Academics went on strike last month, burgers probably weren't its first concern. But this far-flung trade association—which represents midwives, lawyers, and hospital staff—includes the nation's veterinarians. And on this island, no vets equals no meat.

Iceland runs a tight (meat) ship; the nation's slaughterhouses and meatpacking facilities are required to get frequent vet inspections. Additionally, veterinarians review all the nation's imported meat.

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Now, many tons of beef, chicken and pork are languishing on Iceland's docks (one imagines wild dogs circling) and farmers claim to be overrun with excess livestock. Supermarkets are crying foul, as panicky patrons clear out shelves and stockpile their freezers.

Guðmundur Marteinsson, managing director of Bónus supermarkets, told the Iceland Review that his stores would run out of chicken and beef by this week. Some heretics are even making burgers out of sheep (Iceland's most common farm animal).

"The situation is severe and I know that some meat processing plants have started experimenting with hamburgers made with lamb," said Guðmundur Gíslason, managing director of Kjötmarkaðurinn meat market. The horror.

This situation is partly rooted in the country's austere import policies; island nations must take special care not to infect their livestock with global germs. Iceland has been especially forceful in its approach, as centuries of isolation have left its native fauna quite vulnerable. (Incoming tourists routinely have their meat snacks confiscated and burned.) Therefore most of the country's meat is still produced domestically, a process that has now ground to a halt.

Icelandic farmers, naturally, are pushing back against the strike. It's more than just self-interest at play—in a high-volume operation, disrupting the slaughter schedule can lead to rapid overcrowding. The Icelandic Veterinary Association granted a poultry exemption at the end of April, allowing the slaughter of 50,000 chickens and 1,000 turkeys. A pig exemption was briefly allowed last week.

These were just stopgaps, however. To really end this carne crisis, the striking workers need to ink a lasting agreement with the government. On Monday, the Icelandic state pitched an informal offer to the union, a 12 percent wage increase over three years. The chair of the Association of Academics called this but "a tiny step in the right direction," a sign the strike will probably drag on.

Truthfully, a steak shortage may not be the worst consequence of this labor crisis. As more and more industries keep joining the strike, total employees affected are nearing 70,000 (roughly 40 percent of Iceland's labor force). Pressing issues include housing problems, a hospital backlog, and public transport and tourism concerns.

Also, one sad chihuahua.

Something else to consider: In these trying times, with tensions running sky-high, Iceland's beleaguered residents may not even be able to console themselves with a wonderful hot dog. Is nothing sacred?