- François-Xavier Branthôme
In early April, the Ministry of Health Regulatory Committee for Promotion of Healthy Nutrition in Israel published an initial draft for public comment of its recommendations for marking food products in order to combat obesity in Israel. According to Ministry of Health figures, 60% of Israelis are overweight, and 8% are diabetic. Under the recommendations, food manufacturers will have to put a negative mark on food products containing large amounts of sugar, salt, or fat. The negative mark will be on a red sticker attached to the product.
Implementation of the recommendations was expected to be in three stages, each of which will be stricter in the level of components requiring negative marking. In the first stage, products containing more than 800 milligrams of sodium, 22.5 grams of sugar, or 6 grams of fat per 100 grams will require negative marking. This stage was scheduled to go into effect in January 2018, but when it will actually take place is unclear, due to disagreements between authorities. The second stage was scheduled for July 2019, and the third stage for December 2020.
No health justification
Italy exports a substantial quantity of food products to Israel, including pasta, wine, tomato products, and many others. According to Italian Food Industry Federation figures, exports to Israel totalled USD 2.7 billion in 2016, compared with USD 2.5 billion in 2015. Israeli food exports to Italy in 2016 were estimated at USD 950 million, compared with USD 850 million in 2015.
Last year, Italy exported 2,100 mT of tomato paste, 7,000 mT of canned tomatoes and 2,500 mT of sauces to Israel.
A similar reform was implemented last year in Chile which impacted Italian exports to that country, and authorities fear the same effect could hit Italian products in Israel. "Unhealthy product marking reduced Italian food exports to Chile by 8% following the reform there," says Raffaele de Lutio, a consultant for the Italian Food Industry Federation who visited the Israeli Ministry of Health in July. "If it is shown that people don't buy because of the sticker, even though there is no proven scientific medical justification for this reform, it will be a violation of Israel's agreement with the European Union.
"Even if the reform in its current format goes into effect, we'll need at least two years to adjust our packaging to the new rules; otherwise, it will be very difficult to comply with it. What we produce for Israel will be only for Israel. It's not a big market, and any change in it is consequential and incurs additional costs. […] The Israeli market is significant for the food industry in Italy, amounting to 2% of the Italian total export market. It's the only market outside Europe with which we have a significant connection," says de Lutio.
Revenue from exports of tomato products to Israel amounted to 10 million Euros last year,
representing about 0,8% of the total Italian revenue issued from tomato products exports.
"The main difficulties posed by the reform to importers of Italian food products is that it is not based on real health definitions. There is no proof of a direct connection between consumption of a certain product and a specific disease. Butter, sugar, or olive oil aren't hazardous in themselves; they are hazardous when used in excess - when consumption is uncontrolled," de Lutio declares.
Asked about the price of the imported products, he answered, "The reform will definitely increase the price. If the regulation in this format is approved, just making the new packages will make the price go up. That was also the result in Chile - a 15% rise in the average price. It's not just putting on stickers so that they don't cover the product logo; the entire package has to be redesigned."