For the last seven years, Marianne Orum has owned a narrow store in a charming street in the heart of this Danish capital.
A sign advertises “British and South African Food and Drink.”
The shelves are lined with products familiar to most Americans, like Betty Crocker Pancake Mix, but also more exotic items, like Heinz’s Taste of Home Delightful Spotted Dick Pudding in cans, and bottles of Harviestoun Old Engine Oil porter.
But in January Ms. Orum got a phone call from government food inspectors. Tipped off by a competitor, they told her she was selling products that were fortified with vitamins or minerals, and such products require government approval, which she did not have, so she would have to take them off the shelves.
The culprits were Ovaltine; a shredded wheat cereal called Shreddies; a malt drink called Horlicks; and Marmite, the curiously popular yeast byproduct that functions in England as a sandwich spread, snack or base for a soup (just add boiling water), and is sometimes known as tar-in-the-jar.
“That’s four products in one go,” said Ms. Orum, clearly angered. “That’s a lot for a small company.”
Application for approval, she said, costs almost $1,700 per product, and time for approval can run up to six months or more; the fee is not refunded if the product is rejected.
As she says and in her point of view “It’s a strange thing, this attitude in Denmark,” she said, in a tone of exasperation. “The government wants to decide what we eat and not.”
Her partner, Roddy Gray, 55, a Scotsman who has lived in Denmark for 27 years, says something is clearly rotten. “We don’t have a day without people asking for Marmite,” he said. “And this is the E.U.?” he went on, referring to the European Union. “All for one and one for all?”
The inclusion of Horlicks particularly incensed him. “My mum and dad had one every night,” he said.
Now, a petition lies on the counter asking for signatures so that Marmite can return. It had been there one day, and five people had signed.
The thing is that the rules and regulations is made to protect the population in Denmark, and as the authorities says the population in Denmark does not lack vitamins or minerals as they might do other places, the only ones that might can have a lack in Denmark, could be immigrants, people not getting out much, some dark skinned as lot of the D vitamin comes in through the sun and since there is less sun in Denmark in the winter months they could need a little D vitamins.
But we need to protect the general population against vitamin and mineral poisoning, and we do this by have regulations in place for it.
All governments regulate food and drink sales, and certainly the problem lacks the urgency of the E.coli infections in Germany and Scandinavia, including Denmark, which has claimed lives and affected hundreds of people. What some people might think is odd in Denmark is that the government, perhaps alone anywhere, is suspicious of foods that are fortified with vitamins or minerals. But the general population is satisfied with how it is controlled by the Government.
Manufacturers must apply for approval, which is granted if the vitamin or mineral enrichment is within levels set by the law. Essentially, the Danes believe that if you’re eating a balanced diet, enriching food with vitamin or mineral additives can be harmful.
“It’s quite well documented that most vitamins are toxic, depending on the amount taken in,” said Jens Therkel Jensen, deputy head of the division for nutrition at the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration, the local equivalent of the F.D.A. Certain age groups, he said, like very young children and the elderly, are particularly at risk.
“The Danish consumer is wary of fortified products,” Mr. Jensen said. Yet he acknowledged that the traditional skepticism was waning. “We live in an open economy.”
Almost half the applications since 2009, he said, have been for energy drinks, like Red Bull, which was admitted last year after several years, and Glacéau, which is made by Coke and hit the market this month.
The new law has in fact ‘liberalised’ the market, despite recent negative press, suggests one of the decision makers.
Hanne Damsholt, a computer technician, shared Mr. Jensen’s concern. “I’m not quite clear about it, but somehow the government attitude is right,” she said, as she left an organic butcher shop across from Ms. Orum’s store. “I make no prepared foods; I prepare the meals myself that I give my family. I have to know what’s in it.”
All this was little consolation in England, where Marmite has a cult following, and the call for retaliation was immediate. When The Guardian newspaper reported that Denmark had ordered Marmite off the shelves, almost 300 readers responded on the paper’s Web site, one demanding that Britain ban Carlsberg beer, another the works of Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher. A third demanded an embargo on Lego blocks, the colorful little plastic bricks that originated in Denmark.
When the law on additives took effect in 2004, Kellogg, the American cereal maker, applied for 18 products, including breakfast cereals and cereal bars, some popular for generations in the United States. All 18 were refused because they were enriched with excessive levels (by Danish standards) of iron, calcium, vitamin B or other supplements.
However before the law came in effect fortified food was not allowed at all, so that it is now allowed is an improvement for companies making fortified food.
Kellogg abided by the law, and now sells a few products locally, like All-Bran and Special K Red Berries, which it manufactures so that supplements are within the permitted Danish levels.
“We support fortification in general,” said Vibeke Haislund, a spokeswoman for Kellogg, in an e-mail. “However, there are some countries, such as Denmark, where regulations restrict the addition of nutrients, and we comply with these laws and regulations.”
The Danish food industry, which ships hams and baby ribs, among other products, to the United States, would like to see the ban rescinded.
“You won’t see a lack of vitamins in the Danes, and the opinion of researchers is that they do not need further fortification,” said Astrid Bork Andersen, senior adviser to the Danish Food and Drink Federation, which represents about 250 food companies. “However, we think it should be the choice of the consumer.”
Particularly for smaller food producers and retailers, she said, “It’s a burden, moneywise and timewise.”
Her organization is banking on the harmonization of laws concerning vitamin and mineral supplements, which were agreed upon by the European Union in 2006. The new rules are now expected to take effect in mid-2012, when upper limits for supplements are defined.
“Habits are changing,” Ms. Andersen said. Only recently has Denmark begun fortifying milk with Vitamin D, a practice that has existed in the United States for decades. “There is more relaxation,” she said.
Louise Hasback, a regular customer in Ms. Orum’s shop, a native of Denmark with a taste for British food, was disappointed to find the shop out of pork pies, a favorite of hers. She bought several bags of English potato chips.
As for fortified food, “I try to avoid it,” she said, though she said she gave vitamin pills to her daughter and believed she should start taking supplements herself.
“You get to an age when you have to look after yourself, you know, calcium,” said Ms. Hasback, who said she was in her 60s. But she was no fan of Marmite, enriched or not. “The first time I ate it, I could not believe it,” she said.