All the Salmonella, Listeria and Hysteria in Israel’s Food Chain

Most companies don’t know where the contamination originated. Sorry to add to your worries.

Illustration
Amos Biderman

The panic reached new heights on Monday. A glitch at a factory that makes Materna Extra Care baby formula caused a halt in production that led to shortages in stores. In the absence of real information, some young parents figured the company had suspended manufacture or yanked the product over a health scare. Stories began to circulate about Materna-fed babies with sudden diarrhea. Fear spiked about contamination in the emotionally sensitive area of the food industries, the nourishment we give to infants. Given the spate of stories about contamination in Israeli-made foods in the past two weeks, both the media and the public presumably found it hard to believe that the Materna issue was purely technical, despite the reassurances of the CEO.

Israeli food manufacturers recall about 100 products a year, although that number doesn’t include problems that aren’t made public because the affected items never left the factory.

In late July, Unilever destroyed hundreds of tons of its Osem brand breakfast cereals after the discovery of salmonella. contamination. Matters deteriorated when the company said the tainted products never reached stores, but some had, and complaints about diarrhea followed. In mid-August, SuperPharm recalled Life granola products because of moths, and Milotal called in frozen French fries because of listeria. Soglowek admitted it had found listeria near its “grilled hamburger in a bun” production line.

But all that paled compared to the ruckus over chilled, prepared salads, including hummus and tehina.

On August 11, the Health Ministry halted the sale of Prince tehina, which in addition to being sold in stores is an ingredient in the products of numerous food makers, and suspended the company’s license indefinitely. That was 10 days after the Strauss Group found salmonella in tests of a sample of Prince tehina, which it uses in its own salads. Another Prince customer, the salad maker Tzabar, found that its salads were bad too. Prince recalled 120 tons of tehina to its plant in Ilabun, in northern Israel, and buried the lot.

Ofer Vaknin

Hush-hush on hygiene

It wasn’t over: On Wednesday, after an inspection, the Health Ministry ordered Baracke-brand halvah off supermarket shelves, and also reported fear of salmonella in Miki frozen salmon. And the hysteria was on.

Most manufacturers wouldn’t talk with us about the industry’s hygiene inspection protocols, presumably because they were terrified of association with anything germy. Unilever, Prince and Strauss wouldn’t let us visit their production lines. The few quality-assurance people we could get to talk were torn between their desire to reassure the public and the fact that in practice, the Israeli consumer has to pretty much rely on the goodwill of the manufacturers.

Finding contamination is one thing; finding the source is another, explains food technologist Omri Gur of Biofood. By the time you feel sick, chances are the bad thing you ate was three or four days ago.

Beyond hygienic standards, the developments also underscore the concentration of the Israeli food industry; one tehina supplier wilts and hummus makers went down like dominoes. A consumer trying to avoid Unilever cereal discovers that almost 60% of all breakfast cereal in Israel come from it (today Telma is one of its brands). Then when Unilever got into a shouting match with Logisticare over who moved tainted pallets of cereal, consumers unhappily realized that the logistics company actually works with tons of Israeli manufacturers.

If it hadn’t been Unilever, but some tiny company, the public would never have known. Neither would the manufacturer, says Dudu Weissman, former owner of breakfast cereal maker Tirpaz. Why? Because the big boys employ food inspectors, even more than the rules require, and the minnows do not.

“The big manufacturers invest a great deal in quality assurance because an event like this can ruin a company,” he says, noting: If you close down a Telma production line, for instance, you’ve ruined the whole city of Arad.

People panic when some germ raises its hairless head, but maybe the germs are out there all the time unnoticed, Weissman points out: adding that Israel has bigger problems than salmonella. In any case he feels the big companies are actually very clean and cautious, and it’s true that stuff happens, but that helpless sense people have that there are no rules, is not right.

In the latest bacterial brouhaha, “Nobody died, nothing actually happened,” points out Gil Kaduri, food technologist.

Even if Israelis didn’t spend the last two weeks clinging to toilet bowls, just trying to understand what exactly they face gives one a queasy stomach. The generic name salmonella covers thousands of bacterial variants that can cause illness ranging from a bout of loose stools to real disease, and even typhoid fever, to death. Israel hasn’t had serious salmonella cases for decades, though. Listeria is also a catchall for germs that cause various conditions of the gut: Pregnant women are especially vulnerable.

Cereal boxes photographed at a Jerusalem supermarket on June 19, 2016.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

By the way, that moth that flies out of your flour may be revolting, but it isn’t dangerous.

Different bacteria require different cultivation conditions. Listeria usually comes with products from the earth, meaning vegetables. It likes watery environs and chilly temperatures; it isn’t fazed by freezing. Salmonella comes with animal foods — chicken, eggs and so on, and can be killed by freezing.

High temperatures kill most bacteria, leaving extremophiles out of it. Which makes salmonella in Unilever cereal really mysterious. The first phase of making breakfast cereal is an extruder, where the flours and sugars are mixed, and stuff added to make a thick mush that gets pushed through a filter to create long strips. Those are cut into cornflakes or whatever, which in turn are pressed, and then toasted. That should kill the bugs.

Choose your infection

Ergo, the salmonella evidently came onboard during packaging, but not by the cardboard, which also undergoes heating. It had to be during the cooling of the flakes before packaging.

Tehina is 100% sesame-seed paste, no animal products, so whence the salmonella? Industry sources figure it has to be “primary infection,” which could happen, for instance, if a bird defecated on a sack outside the plant, then the sack was brought into the manufacturing area — you get the picture.

“Secondary infection” is when a worker doesn’t wash his hands, or the production line is filthy.

Prince itself says the contamination originated in the pipeline that fills the giant bags of the paste for sale to manufacturers like Strauss — probably due to some unhygienic worker.

“Listeria or salmonella could originate in a dirty forklift, standing water or a rag that somebody left in the wrong place. When making tehina, the heat in which the sesame seeds are crushed probably isn’t high enough to kill salmonella germs if they’re in the raw material. Also, a tehina factory is waterless. You can’t pour water on the production line to clean it because in tehina, water is a contaminant ... making cleaning harder,” Kaduri says.

In other words, the companies don’t know where the contamination originated. Sorry to add to your worries.

Whose job is it to make sure pigeons don’t crap in the storerooms, that the production line is clean and that workers wash their hands? The manufacturer. It has to have business licenses, which require passing a hygiene inspection, but once the license is in hand, responsibility for supervision is its alone.

“The Health Ministry directives are full of holes,” says Moshe Biran of quality assurance company Bimofood.”Sometimes they tell you what the result should be, but not how to achieve it.” Different inspectors may say different things, he adds, and they only show up ahead of renewing the business license.

“There’s no standard for how many tests a manufacturer must conduct,” though he thinks there should be, says Biran, adding, “There’s no supervisory authority.”

Biran notes that big manufacturers do more testing than the little ones, but if a company has seven or eight workers, adding intensive testing could ruin it. Yet the Health Ministry never inspects them either.

Hmm. If the minnows are forced to do heavy testing and collapse, the Israeli food industry will become even more concentrated.

And hiring a food technologist costs too much for a tiny company to support, says Kaduri.

Speaking of competition, he’s noted Israeli shops brim today with cheap pasta from Turkey and sardines and couscous from Morocco — “Who knows where it came from. And that’s even before we get into riskier things like meat, which is riskier than cereal,” says Weissman. Israel can’t supervise standards at a plant across the world. So if Israeli law is changed to force manufacturers to report every malfunction, they’d be at an even greater disadvantage against imports, says one manufacturer.

Burning the brand

One manufacturer says that if a food plant has 30 workers, two or three will work in quality assurance, or around 3% to 5% of the company’s costs. Food technologists and quality assurance inspectors can each cost 10,000 shekels to 11,000 shekels ($2,600 to $2,900) a month. Testing is expensive. What happened at Shamir salads this month indicates that it tested for listeria, but not salmonella.

The companies routinely carry out extermination, and big companies must maintain positive internal air pressure (air is pumped into the manufacturing area, making sure that it escapes through every crack and door — and that insects can’t get in). Moreover, the business licensing law requires the site to be sealed against pigeons, rats, cats and sundry life forms that we don’t want relieving themselves on our food. A major company with multiple manufacturing sites may spend thousands of shekels a month just on extermination, says exterminator Eli Lugasi.

Yet at the end of the day, when the media howls about salmonella in some product, it’s not the immediate plunge in sales that burns the most: That will pass, though the class action motions can be another story. It’s the damage to the brand.

“The economic value of the discarded products, halting supply or shortages in the market is peanuts compared with the value of the brand. If anybody thinks that manufacturers send tainted products because it pays, they’re off,” says a former food manufacturer.

What can the Israeli shopper do at the supermarket to ensure cleaner food? Not much.

Actually, salmonella in cornflakes and other cereals is quite the mystery. They’re more usually found in eggs and other animal products, not dry foods, says Biran.

Eggs are much more dangerous than oatmeal, for example. People are not necessarily aware that most chickens are contaminated with it, and everywhere that raw chicken touched — the counter, the cutting board, the knife — is now contaminated with raw chicken juice, and all should be sterilized with boiling water lest the salmonella reaches the salad. But in contrast to cornflakes, we usually bring the chicken to 100 degrees Celsius before we eat it. Not many people want to eat boiled cornflakes, though.

Anyway, why the sudden spate of announcements? Have Israeli production lines suddenly become filthier? “It could be coincidence, or simply that now all the microscopes and telescopes are being whipped out,” says an industry insider. “Maybe the same thing was happening two months ago but nobody noticed.” Feel better now?