A strike by city veterinarians protesting reform of food regulation slated to start on Monday could quickly lead to a shortage of poultry, meat and fish across Israel, if the labor action lasts more than two days.
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In an announcement published Wednesday, the Agriculture Ministry said the strike would reduce the number of live poultry brought to slaughterhouses, which would in turn cut supplies to retailers by about 25%. It will also reduce supplies of meat and fish.
It’s not clear how long the veterinarians will strike, but the Agriculture Ministry says there’s nothing it can do to head off a shortage because processing plants are already working at full capacity.
“We recommend that consumers prepare and adjust their consumption of beef, check and fish,” it said.
The background to the strike is the so-called cornflakes law, a package of measures aimed at bringing more competition into the food industry, among other things by easing regulation on imports of dry food to encourage more businesses to enter the market and increase competition.
The law also moves authority over products from live animals from municipal veterinary authorities to the central government. Under the legislation, the agriculture and health ministries are supposed to form a joint venture company to handle supervise handling of animal products with the aim of reducing regulations and lowering costs.
The veterinarians employed by the new service will inspect meat and other animal products at retail points of sale rather than at the entrance of each municipality – a change that is expected to generate tens of millions of shekels in savings annually for slaughterhouses by, among other things, enabling them to use their truck fleets more efficiently. They also won’t have to conform to municipal working hours, which often don’t match their needs.
The veterinarians say they oppose the change because the government pays less than the municipalities and provides less comfortable working conditions or fixed hours.
“This is draconian legislation that does nothing to advance reform,” The Veterinarians Association said in a statement. “The real goal is to destroy organized labor for veterinarians in the local authorities. The plan is to fire local authority veterinarians and replace them with contract workers.”
Avshalom Dolev, director of the poultry wholesalers association, told TheMarker that the dispute is over the 14 million shekels ($3.6 million) that slaughterhouses pay as a form of tax to the federation of local authorities, which in turn allocates it to the municipalities.
In a 2014 decision, the High Court of Justice ruled that the arrangement was not legal, among other reasons, because it had no basis in any national legislation but on rules set by local authorities. The ruling was one reason why the national veterinary service was included in the cornflakes law, said Dolev, whose group represents about half the slaughterhouses in Israel.
He faulted the current system of inspection at city limits for risking food safety by violating an industry practice of ensuring constant cool temperatures from warehouse to truck to store for fresh meat and fish products.
“When delivery trucks are opened by a local council veterinarian, the inspection itself causes the temperature inside the truck to rise and hurts the quality of the product,” explained Dolev “We want the products to be inspected but at the end point of the process, not in the middle of it. We’re even ready to pay for the inspections, as is written in the law, and take responsible for the product until it reaches the grocery.”