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Israeli food giants angered as ministry demands labels for unhealthy products in 6 months

Israel’s food manufacturing industry is feeling the heat as it awaits the conclusions of an official panel seeking to encourage healthy eating.

At a meeting with industry representatives last Thursday, Health Ministry officials made it clear they would not soften the panel’s upcoming recommendations related to mandatory labeling of unhealthy foods. In fact, industry representatives present felt that the ministry had already decided to adopt the recommendations without consultation with the industry.

In advance of the meeting, they were provided with guidelines on products deemed unhealthy and that will require red warning stickers. By yesterday, the chorus was growing among industry executives, who insisted that the industry has to fight the plan by all means possible.

The panel was convened after Health Minister Yaakov Litzman announced last April that he would fight the consumption of harmful food. He took the step after Israel, which was included in a ranking of European countries, had the highest incidence of overweight citizens; Israeli children, meanwhile, had the third-highest incidence compared to their European peers.

When the panel began its work, Litzman made headlines for suggesting that sweetened beverages be taxed and for taking aim at America’s fast-food giant, proclaiming, “There’s no need to eat McDonald’s.” The burger chain shot back at the time: “We are sorry that the health minister chooses to express himself in a non-scientific manner and chooses populist remarks that make headlines but don’t reflect what is happening across the chain. McDonald’s Israel carried out a comprehensive health reform over a decade ago that is highly respected in the European community.”

Over the past six months, the ministry seemed to became more flexible. An aggressive ministry television campaign against salty snack foods, for instance, was pulled, amid rumors of industry pressure, after being broadcast just twice. The Health Ministry denied that the step was the result of pressure, but said it would take any further steps in conjunction with the industry.

But after Thursday’s meeting, executives from the major food manufacturers – which included Tnuva, Strauss, Osem, Coca-Cola Israel and Unilever – got the impression that they would not be consulted over the panel’s forthcoming recommendations.

The meeting followed the ministry’s dissemination of detailed minimum guidelines regarding desirable nutritional values (including saturated fat, calories, etc.), which also specified what nutritional content would trigger a compulsory red warning sticker on products that don’t meet the standard. Products within the guidelines would earn a green sticker.

The guidelines are based on a similar approach that has been successful in Chile, according to Ronit Endevelt, who heads the ministry’s nutrition department. Manufacturers in the South American country rethought their ingredients for 2,500 products within a few months.

The ministry will also recommend enlarging the nutritional information labeling on manufactured food, and illustrating the amount of sugar contained in the product by featuring teaspoons of sugar reflecting 4 grams per spoonful. The Health Ministry has no legal power to ban the sale of unhealthy foods, but is hoping the labeling requirement will spur the industry to rethink food products in Israel, too.

‘Special markings’

Food industry executives claim the warning labeling doesn’t distinguish among food categories, and is based on one uniform minimum standard for solid foods and another for beverages. For example, the standards for ice cream, candy and other similar products should be more flexible than for cheese and dairy snacks, they said.

One industry executive who was critical of the guidelines said Endevelt had stated that the process needed to be implemented quickly because ministers are in place for a short time.

“That’s what’s motivating them? Results for Litzman?” the executive asked rhetorically. “We are not stressed over the sticker itself, because it will not substantially influence consumption, but rather that [the ministry’s] approach has changed.”

Another executive said Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov had led the industry to believe that red stickers would be limited to a small proportion of products, while now it seems they will be required on about half of all products in the supermarket, “including products that would surprise consumers – such as cottage cheese with a lot of sodium, or hard cheeses with high fat content.” Dairy firms, he noted, are likely to be hurt by the requirement after they branded their products as healthy.

“At Thursday’s meeting, we made it clear to the Health Ministry how far the food industry is from the recommendations when it comes to our ability to change the products so quickly,” the executive said. “Expecting that we would be able to improve our product ingredients to meet the minimum standard within six months is crazy. Such a process takes years.”

Another executive suggested that the industry could involve Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the issue, in order to get the ministry to relent.

Industry sources said that the requirement could lead to the labeling of 60% of supermarket food products as unhealthy – and that’s even without the red sticker pertaining to products with ingredients such as preservatives or artificial colors.

The Health Ministry issued a statement saying that it is acting to improve the health of the country’s population, which suffers from diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses. “A major portion of these illnesses are the result of food high in sugar, sodium and fat. We are trying to advance a necessary change, in cooperation with the industry, within a reasonable time frame to present the panel’s conclusions as soon as possible.”

The statement added, in reference to Thursday’s meeting, that “Health Minister Yaakov Litzman’s name was in no way mentioned at the meeting.”