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Norway Braces For A Christmas Without Butter

Christmas without cookies sounds like something the Grinch would dream up. But that may be the sad fate of many Norwegians, with a national butter shortage less than two weeks before the holiday. No krumkaker. No Berlinerkranser. No sandbakkel. In short, no delicious, butter-infused treats.

The cause of the butter blackout on the eve of the year's biggest baking holiday isn't entirely clear. Norwegian news outlets are reporting that Tine, the country's dominant dairy cooperative, blames the popularity of a high-fat Atkins-style diet and poor weather. But critics say that Tine, which controls 90 percent of Norway's domestic butter supply, failed to start importing butter when it became clear that the domestic supply would fall short.

As our colleagues at Planet Money report, "at its core, this is a story about trade."

It turns out that Norway has very high protective tariffs on butter – about $2 a pound. That's long been a source of friction with neighbors Sweden and Denmark. Norwegian authorities have temporarily lowered the tariffs in response to the current crisis, but it's too little, too late.

The Norwegian citizenry is not at all amused, and is calling for an end to the butter monopoly, according to the website Views and News from Norway. An editorial in the newspaper Dagens Naeringsliv fumed that Tine's behavior amounts to "arrogance towards customers, who every day all year long are paying the price for inefficient Norwegian agriculture."

Some stores reported getting small shipments earlier this week, but that butter was quickly snapped up. Ingenious deals have sprung up across Norway, from the teenagers in the south who hawked two kilos of butter online, with proceeds earmarked to pay for their graduation party in the spring, to a newspaper in the west that offered a half-kilo with a new 10-month subscription.

And the butter-rich Danes offered charity to the oil-rich Norwegians, handing out 2,000 packages of Danish butter on the streets of Oslo. Ouch.

It's probably too late to organize a butter lift of American dairy fat to Oslo in time for the holidays. And if any cookie-deprived Norwegians caught comedian Stephen Colbert's less than sympathetic report, they probably wouldn't want our butter anyway. As Colbert pointed out, the United States is so awash in butter and butter-like substances, we even have something called "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter."

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