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Food Wars: Denmark’s War on Marmite

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Wednesday, 8 June 2011


Wars have always been fought over food, that persistent necessity in life. François Rabelais, in his 16th century classic The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel (La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel), attributes the outbreak of one conflict to a disagreement over prices between the cake-bears of Lerné and initially courteous shepherds. The latter were duly insulted as being, amongst many other things, ‘Bog-trotters’ and ‘Dung-drovers’. The modern battleground for foodstuffs might be more sophisticated but the standard ground of disagreement remain. Food-fare can become a matter of conflict be it through bans, tariff impositions, or inflicted shortages. 

A notable feature of modern food wars arises in the regulatory regime of such collective bodies as the E.U. Be it through hygiene controls, hormone restrictions, or added vitamins, the food regime erected by Europe’s collective bureaucracy is strict, uncompromising, and often ill thought through.

Denmark, at times militant practitioner of such regulations, took action in late May to ban (to pedants, refuse authorising) various products authorities have deemed fortified in added vitamins or minerals. One of them is Marmite, the United Kingdom’s yeast, beer-derived product that can only be described as an acquired taste, however ‘nutritious’ it might be.

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Defenders of the marmite-eating creed (they have been around since 1902) have assumed something of a culinary freemasonry. One line is the patriotic one. The Danes, in their ignorance, don’t like this wonder spread. The Brits bombed Copenhagen during the Napoleonic Wars, and this food reaction is their small revenge.

Yorkshire-born graphic designer Lyndsay Jensen, a resident of Copenhagen, was livid on hearing the news. “They don’t like it because it’s foreign. But if they want to take Marmite off me, they’ll have to wrench it from my cold dead hands.” It is a comfort to see that Jensen’s graphic designing Marmite grasping hands are dead to begin with.

Others see the particularly foul substance as a food of the people, a kind of simulated austerity package for those in need of nutrients. (Fancy a nostalgic re-run of Britain in the 1950s, anyone?) Tom Clark in The Guardian was baffled that there could be any fuss about the seemingly inoffensive substance at all.  Besides it “instils the virtues of thrift”. And, it should be loved by the green and friendly – it is, after all “vegetarian”.

Nutritionists such as Melanie Brown have carried the can for the Marmite fraternity. “Marmite plays such a useful part in many people’s diet, and in my practice it’s incredibly useful for older people…who are short of vitamin B12”. Brown, after having cited the elderly as notable beneficiaries, also added pregnant mothers to the list of potential munchers who might benefit. “It’s full of folic acid, and there’s lots of evidence that many women, young women of child-bearing age are deficient in folic acid.”

Another more difficult line to combat is the ethics behind the ban. What, for instance, about cigarettes? Evidently, the right to pollute bodies and environments remains a god given right, even if eating Marmite isn’t in the registry of divine dispensations. And what about its own companies and what they are allowed to manufacture or export? Danish companies, for instance, can produce chemicals that are used in lethal injection for death row inmates. Bureaucracy is rarely rational.

Abigails, a shop in Copenhagen specialising in marketing British products, has commenced a campaign on saving Marmite from the inconsiderate Danish regulator. The proprietors claim that not a day goes by without a customer querying after the sticky, dark substance. Liberal Democrat MEP Liz Lynne has also joined the campaign. “Marmite lovers should be able to enjoy their favourite spread wherever they are in the EU.”

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The other notable casualty in Denmark’s food campaign is Marmite’s wicked twin, Vegemite. And wicked it is, with several concerns voiced in the past over, amongst other things, its high salt content at the hands of a population with a rapidly expanding waistline. Officials at Kraft Australia got emotional at the move. Surely, the Princess of Denmark would want a symbol of their generosity in the form of a special package? She is, after all, a native of Australia. 

Will this culinary farce, which also includes such products as Ovaltine and Horlicks, continue? Italy is set to take the more restrictive food road, followed by other countries on the continent. The betting odds on this vary. But surely people have far more serious matters to worry about. Take those killer cucumbers, just exonerated by German officials as the cause of 22 deaths in favour of unsuspecting sprouts. Every one needs, it seems, a good food war from time to time to keep the fires at home burning.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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