New Israeli Health-labeling Rules Less Strict Than Food Makers Feared

Health Ministry’s proposals for warnings on excessive sodium, sugar and fat are milder, will come into force later.

Packets of the salty snack Bamba. Will likely avoid a red label until 2020.
Packets of the salty snack Bamba. Will likely avoid a red label until 2020. Daniel Bar-On

Israel’s food industry breathed a sigh of relief yesterday after the Health Ministry’s recommendations on how to label “unhealthy” food ended up being far less onerous than they had feared.

The centerpiece of the ministry’s recommendations is a plan to force food makers to put red labels on food products that exceed maximum levels of sodium, sugar and saturated fats.

But the recommendations set higher minimums than the ministry had signaled just a week ago, and pushed back the deadline for the labels to start appearing.

The food industry had revved up lobbying efforts over the past few days, even threatening to turn to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to block or ease the plan. But Health Minister Yaakov Litzman denied his ministry had caved into pressure.

“We didn’t give in to anyone,” he said at a news conference. “The panel completed its work as it wanted. … It’s important for us to preserve the industry and workplaces. Six months ago, no one would have thought we could have done it – red, green or blue,” Litzman added, referring to the planned color labels.

The recommendations of the Regulatory Committee to Advance Healthy Food call for red labels to be affixed initially on products containing more than 800 milligrams of sodium, 22.5 grams of sugar or 6 grams of saturated fat per 100 grams of product. The labeling will begin in January 2018.

More demanding standards will only go into effect in July 2019 – nearly three years from now – and the final, strictest standards will be introduced only in December 2020. Then, red labels will be required on products with 400 milligrams of sodium, 10 grams of sugar or 4 grams of saturated fat per 100 grams of product.

Examples of food products that will labeled, starting in July 2018.

Only last week the Health Ministry had signaled that red labels would be required initially on products with more than 500 milligrams of sodium, 15 grams of sugar and 5 grams of saturated fat. Food industry sources said at the time that this would have meant 60% of all products would have carried the red label.

Moreover, Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov had previously said the new rules would go into effect in six months.

The easier standards mean that popular foods such as Osem’s salty Bamba snack will be saved a red label for now, as will most sweetened dairy products.

Osem Chairman Dan Propper told Army Radio yesterday that Bamba is a “healthy snack,” although, under the revised recommendations, its 5.6 grams of saturated fat will push it over the minimum needed to avoid the red label in 2020.

In addition to the labeling, the panel’s recommendations call for the number of calories to be displayed more prominently on packages, and for sugar content to be illustrated by teaspoon icons. Products deemed “healthy” will be able to carry a green label.

In addition, the proposals also call for limits on advertising “harmful” food on television, radio, newspapers and online. Siman Tov acknowledged that officials would have problems policing digital marketing, but vowed that they would develop efficient ways to enforce the rules.

A major part of the typical Israeli’s diet that is exempt from the labeling rules for now is fast food – which is ironic, considering the ministry’s drive for better labeling and eating began with an attack on McDonald’s earlier this year, when the health minister declared the franchise and junk food “out.”

“It’s impossible to require labeling on food that isn’t packaged, but we can demand that restaurants post fat, sodium and sugar [levels] on their menus, and we’re working on this,” he said. “There will be a separate directive for restaurants and fast food chains,” he added, noting, “We can’t say when this will actually happen.”

Food industry sources attributed the decision to leave restaurants out of the new labeling rules to the ministry’s reluctance to open a second front against another powerful industry.

Litzman said he opposed imposing taxes on harmful foods, like soft drinks, as another way of discouraging consumers, although ministry officials had hinted earlier they might pursue the idea. “We don’t need to deal in taxes but in education,” he said. When one of the panel members suggested taxes might be considered later, Litzman shot back, “Not in the future, either.”

An executive at one of the big food makers, who asked not to be named, said that at a time when consumers are so focused on high food costs, no minister would ever consent to imposing additional taxes on food. “There’s not a politician in Israel you could get interested in taxing – it’s not politically correct,” he said.