Bucking Global Trend, Israel Imports Record Amount of Meat via Live Animal Shipments

Despite efforts to curb the practice, which results in the suffering and death of some of the animals while on the ships, the number of live animal shipments jumped last year by 42%

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Live animal transfer.
Live animal transfer.Credit: Adi Ofer
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

In many countries around the world, the practice is already scorned, but in Israel last year there was actually a sharp increase in the number of seaborne shipments of live animals – importing calves and lambs to the country for slaughter. It’s happening despite the intense suffering that the shipments inflict on the animals and despite various efforts to curb the practice.

Food industry officials attribute the increase in shipments to last year’s lifting of coronavirus lockdowns, which they said resulted in wasteful spending and higher meat consumption. Over the course of 2021, no fewer than 856,630 calves and lambs were imported into Israel alive on ships – compared to 601,741 in 2020 – an increase of 42 percent. Last year, it turns out, was a record year, exceeding the previous record set in 2019 by 165,000 animals.

The practice of live animal shipments picked up its pace over the past decade following changes in tax policies that made such imports more profitable. But for the animals, the journey has involved between three and 18 days in packed conditions in which they are mired in urine and excrement and subject to extreme heat and cold. In the course of the journey, some of them are injured or die.

Calves in the Golan Heights, Israel.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The practice has increased despite statements from the Agriculture Ministry that it would reduce the number of live shipments as seven Knesset bills in recent years aimed to do. They would have halted the practice entirely. The most recent bill, which was resubmitted by Yesh Atid legislator Yasmin Fridman and other Knesset members, would reduce the number of imported live animals by 25 percent a year until the practice is stopped entirely. The bill is awaiting consideration by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation.

Concern over outbreak of diseases

Over the years, animal rights groups have documented abuse and other failings relating both to humane treatment and health issues. A year and a half ago, the State Comptroller’s Office released a report containing “findings reflecting substandard conditions on ships bringing livestock from abroad to such an extent that they actually endanger the animals and harm their living conditions, causing them great suffering.” The report also expressed concern that the practice would cause outbreaks of disease due to lax oversight of the health of the animals.

In April 2021, New Zealand became the first country to outright ban the shipment of live animals on its territory. A month later, the British government announced its own intention to halt the practice. Prior to that, Australia had begun limiting live shipments for part of the year due to concern that the weather would cause the calves and lambs to suffer. In 2019, the European Parliament issued a declaration calling on the European Commission to halt live animal shipments.

And in the meantime, Israel’s meat consumption is propelling it to near the top of the list. According to the OECD, the grouping of the world’s developed countries, Israel is in fourth place in per capita red meat consumption – after Argentina, the United States and Brazil. The average Israeli consumes 20.5 kilos (45 pounds) of meat per year. That’s in addition to its consumption of poultry, which is the highest in the world.

Average annual per capita meat consumption in the OECD countries is 14.5 kilos and for the world as a whole it’s 6.4 kilos. Over the years, the share of meat consumption in Israel from live animal shipments has grown – at the expense of frozen and refrigerated meat. The increased consumption of meat has occurred despite the relatively high proportion of vegans and vegetarians in the country and the lively public debate over the cost, both health-related and environmental, of meat consumption.

Some of the rise in the imports of live animals is also related to the increase in such imports via Israel to the Palestinian Authority. Last year, of 858,000 live animals imported into the country, 96,000 of them were sent to the PA.

Dorit Adler, president of the Israeli Forum for Sustainable Nutrition, said she believed a large part of the increase in consumption can also be attributed to increased lamb and mutton consumption among Israeli Arabs.

Advertising and cooking shows

The increase in meat consumption also runs counter to recommendations from the Health Ministry and health agencies around the world, as well as environmental policy. Red meat’s ecological footprint, as measured by greenhouse gas emissions, damage to rainforests and pollution, is the highest.

Demonstration in Ashdod against shipments of calves, Israel, 2018.Credit: Ilan Asaig

“From the standpoint of human health and the environment, the recommendation is to consume very small amounts and preferably none at all,” Adler said. “They’re pushing these products on us in advertising and cooking shows. It’s crazy and we have to stop with it if we cherish life.”

“Part of the explanation is that they’ve encouraged us to consume it with the reforms and lower prices for beef, but from a cultural aspect, this rush to the butcher isn’t clear to me,” said Dr. Sigal Tepper of the nutritional sciences department at Tel-Hai Academic College. “Has it become a status symbol? We’re seeing this despite the talk of veganism and meat substitutes. We aren’t managing to move the needle.”

One of the question marks is when Israelis will stop eating so much meat, as it is estimated that between 6 and 10 percent of the country is either vegetarian or vegan. And unlike other places around the world, Israelis don’t eat meat for breakfast or dinner. “Anyone who eats meat eats a lot more than they need to. It’s also possible that we’ve shifted to eating meat twice a day,” Tepper noted.

“Over the past year, the people of Israel celebrated life as they had never done before,” an Israeli chef who asked to remain anonymous said. “People are bragging about their children not over their accomplishments at school but about how much meat they’ve eaten at a restaurant.”

“In recent years, Israel has become one of the leading vegan powerhouses in the world,” said Yaron Lapidot, who was one of the founders of the group Israel Against Live Animal Shipments. “But at the same time, the rate of imports of live animals has broken every negative record. It’s apparently the result of Israeli citizens’ having run wild because they could no longer go abroad so they turned their annual vacations into gluttony and entertaining themselves in Israel. In addition, it seems that the importers have been devoting a lot of time to PR regarding ‘fresh meat’ versus ‘processed meat’ and in the process increasing the toll of victims from the live shipments,” he said.

The nonprofit group Animals Now has called those involved in live animal shipments “an extreme, merciless minority that is allowing itself to run wild at the expense of helpless calves and lambs.”

“As long as they can,” the group said, “they will continue to pack more and more animals into crowded and polluted ships, wallowing in urine and excrement, sick, injured and desperate. They are showing disregard for the state comptroller’s report that found deficiency after deficiency in this questionable industry, and they are showing disregard for the 88 percent of Israelis who support legislation to stop the live animal shipments because they oppose abuse. We call on members of the Knesset and the government to put an end to this craziness and to act urgently to stop the live animal shipments.”

The Agriculture Ministry said in response that it attaches major importance to everything related to animal welfare. “Overall, the importing is being carried out in accordance with demand. To provide another response to the rising local consumption of meat, the subject of livestock imports is being currently examined by the Agriculture Ministry,” the ministry said.

“The minister of agriculture and rural development, Oded Forer, recently held the first meeting of its kind in Israel on the subject. The meeting was attended by representatives of the nonprofit organizations working on behalf of animal welfare as well as other officials, with the aim of hearing all of the professional opinions and suggesting possible solutions to address this subject,” the ministry added.

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