So, what are you planning as the centerpiece for that special holiday get-together?
How about reindeer? No, I don’t mean live animals or plastic replicas of Santa’s loyal helpers. I mean reindeer meat.
Well, if you happen to live in Norway — and you’re a devout Muslim — your wish just came true.
A Norwegian meat processor, who’s teaming up with a certified halal butcher, is marketing reindeer meat, just in time for the Muslim community to join in celebrating that country’s Christmas food traditions.
According to a report in Agence France-Presse, Harry Dyrstad, the owner of a small, specialty wildlife packing plant near Trondheim, Norway’s third-largest city about 300 kilometers due north of Lillehammer, where the 1994 Winter Olympics were staged, has already shipped meat from more than 100 reindeer to butcher shops nationwide.
Dyrstad obtained a seal of approval from the Islamic Council of Norway, whose members he invited to visit his facility to sample the meat.
“We got the idea one-and-a-half years ago,” he told The Local, Norway’s largest English-language newspaper. “We spoke to some contacts in Dubai, and they said to sell reindeer meat, it has to be halal.”
And guess what? Dyrstad is now looking to develop a ham that Muslims can eat. That’s right: Halal ham, just in time for the holidays.
“We [were informed] that we could produce ham from reindeer, and Muslims could have ham on their sandwiches,” he said.
Crazy? Maybe, but certainly one of the more novel ideas Euro meat processors have hatched of late.
“It is going to be exciting to see how Muslims receive the novelty of reindeer,” Mehtab Afsar, general secretary of the Islamic Council of Norway, told the Trondheim newspaper Adresseavisen. “This is a completely new halal product that Muslims have not had access to before.”
Part of Dyrstad’s motivation is opening a new market. That’s obvious. But it’s also a response to a declining industry. The production of reindeer meat is down, especially in Finland. Just three months earlier, Agent-France Presse reported that reindeer producers there had to reject a German order for the meat from 100,000 reindeer because such a quantity was simply unavailable.
In fact, the business of raising reindeer may be a crossroads, according to the report. In 2013, Finnish herders will sell fewer than 80,000 animals for meat, and some experts are predict a sharp rise in price, which could depress sales and further curtail production.
Rough road for reindeer
The saga of Scandinavian reindeer herders parallels many of the challenges American livestock producers face. For example: foreign competition.
Right now, the Swedish-Finnish company Polarica is importing some 15,000 reindeer carcasses from Russia to help meet demand. According to company officials, there are more than a million reindeer roaming the forests of Siberia, meaning Russian imports could someday surpass reindeer production across all of Scandinavia. At some point, imports could become competitive, rather than complementary, to domestic reindeer herders.
[Quick side note: Do you know the difference between reindeer and caribou? Neither did I.
[Turns out that although the animals are similar, their lifestyles are vastly different. Historically, reindeer were used as draft animals to haul gear for Alaskan gold miners, deliver the mail across the frozen Arctic tundra and by the beginning of the 20th century, as a source of food. Caribou, on the other hand, live in wild, migrating herds known to travel for hundreds of miles. Whereas caribou are taller and more elegant, reindeer are described as “more of a couch potato,” according to Greg Finstad, program manager for the Reindeer Research Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks].
Here’s another parallel issue: The impact of predation. The Sami, an indigenous people living in northern Sweden, are demanding higher compensation for reindeer that are killed by the thousands of bears, lynx, wolverines and wolves roaming northern Sweden. According to Swedish Radio News, the number of predatory wildlife has doubled since the 1990s, when a reindeer compensation system was first established.
The Swedish National Sami Association told government officials that many of the more than 50 Sami reindeer herding communities are struggling financially, and the association wants the numbers of predatory animals reduced and compensation for losses increased.
Meanwhile, the average income for a reindeer herder in 2012-13 was only €2,870 euros, down from an average of €6,000 euros the previous year. Estimates by MTT Agrifood Research Finland predict that the average income in the sector in 2013 will be cut by more than one-half, versus 2012.
It would be too simplistic to hope that Santa could magically restore the reindeer industry to good health, even if he does have a vested interest in making sure the domesticated version of those iconic creatures can continue to thrive.
And while devout Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas as a religious occasion, many people who practice Islam enjoy traditions that coincide with the December holiday season. There won’t be any stockings hung with care in hopes St. Nicholas will soon be there, but maybe Dancer and Prancer could pay those households a visit just the same.
Only in edible form.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.