Israeli Health Ministry Allows Sale of Food Contaminated With Dangerous Bacteria

State Comptroller: Israeli labs unable to test food for dangerous ingredients, ministry’s cumbersome supervision leads to higher prices.

Shoppers in an Israeli supermarket, where the lights are dimming on the Era of the Free Bag.
Tomer Appelbaum

Israel’s Health Ministry allows the sale of dangerous food products contaminated with bacteria, states the section on food safety and supervision in the State Comptroller’s report released on Tuesday.

“The public health laboratories and private laboratories in Israel do not have the capability of testing whether any food product has bacteria and certain other components, some of which are dangerous and even carcinogenic,” reads the annual report from State Comptroller Joseph Shapira.

As opposed to other developed nations, the Health Ministry allows the sale of food, such as poultry, contaminated by dangerous bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter. “There are dangerous constituents and bacteria in food the public health laboratories cannot test for, and the ministry has not provided and answer for it; certain food products have standards but they have not been updated, and no standards have been set for others,” states the report.

During the period of February through November 2015, the state comptroller’s office examined the process used to supervise food products by the health and agriculture ministries, as well as municipalities; along with the operations of five public health labs operated by the Health Ministry. The labs have major problems such as with the refrigerators in which viruses are stored, and no plans exist to correct the problems. In addition, the labs lack professional staff and no additional staffing is planned, states the report.

Many problems were found in the system of supervising food products, both for those produced in Israel and those imported. For example, the regulation of the process is ineffective and the bureaucracy is complex: “The supervision is conducted by many bodies and as a result there is a multiplicity of rules, orders and requirements by various supervisory bodies that increase the expenses of food manufacturers and importers and cause increases in food prices. The Health Ministry’s public health laboratories operate in a decentralized manner without fully exploiting their resources and without an overall systematic view.”

The comptroller says the labs also operate without the authorization of the national authority that approves laboratories, and the Health Ministry has no plans to upgrade the labs and their equipment.

All this translates into a danger to public health: “The [Health] Ministry has not mapped out the ability of the labs to test materials and ingredients in food which could very well cause damage to health, and is not prepared to test them, and so a danger to public health exists,” writes the comptroller.

The Health Ministry said the law concerning protecting the public in food matters was passed by the Knesset in 2015, and “provides an answer to the issue of the decentralization of supervisory bodies and gathers all the legislation concerning food together – and as a result it allows legislative continuity and gives preference and primacy to standards in the area of food safety.

"At the same time as the law was updated, the work of improving regulation has continued, which for some of the issues has provided a response within the law and some will be provided later. The law included among other things a renewed division of responsibilities between the health, agriculture and economy ministries,” it added.

The ministry said the reforms in food supervision in the new law will reduce the time required to release shipments from quarantine in the future, while establishing a computerized system to support the work processes, and provide additional personnel for supervision and increased enforcement on imports.