The Netherlands’ Great Herring Drama Feels Like A Controversy From A Simpler Time

Something is rotten in the country of, uh, the Netherlands, and it isn’t just this poorly shoehorned literary reference. It’s their beloved national fish, the herring, which is, granted, supposed to be kind of rotten. More specifically: lightly salted, raw, served with onion and pickle. But not rotten like this. No, this is a political rot, one stinking of power and influence and a beloved national tradition rank with corruption.

In November, economist Ben Vollaard levied accusations that the national herring test, a beloved Dutch institution, was rigged. Sponsored by Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, the national herring test is “carried out by two expert tasters, who each year rate the herring at over a hundred shops and stands across the country.”

The ratings are based on objective criteria, like weight and fattiness, and subjective ones like taste and appearance, and they have the chance to make or break companies that sell herring.

When Vollaard’s fishmonger scored zero, he suspected foul play. Turns out that, if Vollaard’s fishmonger is to be believed, one of the judges “routinely tipped the scales” in favor of stores who sourced their fish from the Atlantic Group, a distributor based in Schevenigen. That same judge also happens to be a consultant for the Atlantic Group.

So Vollaard, who, uh, freakin’ specializes in using statistics to detect crime, ran the numbers. Sure, Vollaard and his fishmonger could just be bitter, but the findings are admittedly suspicious. Vollaard contacted 85 percent of the shops judged in the past two years and asked who their distributors were. And the results were more shocking than an electric eel: “He found that whereas the overall average score was 5.5, the average for those supplied by Atlantic was 8.7. The extra boost for the Atlantic stores came mainly from the subjective scores.”

Of course, both the judge and the newspaper claim that this is just a red herring—a man angry that maybe he doesn’t have the best taste in lightly salted, oily fish, and that the statistics were lies, or happenstance at best. The mistakes, one could say, not on porpoise. (We’ve committed fully to the puns at this point, just deal.)

Perhaps it just so happens that this particular distributor for whom this judge worked just has the best fish in the Netherlands. But this, to me, seems like a load of carp. Smells fishy, if you will.

Anyways, now some fishmongers are threatening to sue Algemeen Dagblad, and it’s a whole Dutch thing. This test, which has been a biiiiig deal for years, is now on thin ice, with its reputation on the line. It’s a little bit difficult for us Americans to truly understand the gravity of the situation, but imagine if there were a nationally renowned cheesesteak rating contest, and one of the judges, who happened to work for a large provolone distributor, purposely favored restaurants that offered only provolone. As wiz with onions die-hards, we would be furious.

At the same time, what a wonderful world to live in, where the biggest national drama is over a contest that determines whose fishmonger reigns supreme. Instead of, oh, who knows… whether or not your president committed treason? To be honest, we’ve just about haddock with this House of Cards political intrigue. We’re all in with the herring drama, instead.