Israel's Meat Men Take WHO Health Warning in Stride

Processors and importers say their products are not the worst offenders, but retailers expect sales will fall as they have for several years.

An illustrative photo of meat and vegetables on the grill.
Aviad Herman

Israelis meat processors and importers were taking in stride the report by the World Health Organization released on Monday, damning processed and red meats as increasing the risk of cancer in humans.

Many Israeli meat industry executives refused to comment at all on the study, but those who agreed to speak to TheMarker said that their products were not the worst offenders and that, in any case, the WHO’s conclusions were old news — while conceding that the UN organization’s status might deter more consumers from buying and eating meat.

“We’re not planning anything new, no information campaign and no change in how we do things,” said Erez Dahabi, an executive at Baladi, one of Israel’s biggest importers of beef, lamb and fish.

In his view, the WHO report was focused on processed meats containing nitrates that undergo a precooking process and American-style beef.

“The meat we import from South America is from cattle fed in natural open pasture. In the United States, cattle eat mainly from feeding troughs, where they are fed corn, wheat and barley, some of which is sprayed. Cattle are kind of force fed. They are likely to use growth enhancers like hormones.”

The France-based International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the WHO, put processed meat like hot dogs and ham into its highest risk group, which includes tobacco, asbestos and diesel fumes, for which there is “sufficient evidence” of cancer links. The lower classification for red meat reflected “limited evidence” that it causes cancer.

At retail chains, managers were expecting the WHO report would exacerbate the trend of slowly declining sales for products like kebabs and hamburgers, that has been underway for years amid rising health consciousness.

“Sales of processed meats have been falling every year and now, of course, they’ll fall more. In 2013 there was a drop of 15.5% in our chain from 2012. In 2014, there was another drop of 4.5% and in 2015 we registered another drop of 4.5%,” said one retailer, who asked not to be named.

At Maadney Yehiam, whose products includes sausages, hot dogs and packaged cold cuts of the sort that's in the WHO’s cross hairs, management discussed how to respond yesterday morning. Yohai Neeman said he took some comfort in knowing that while the WHO report focused on beef, 70% of his products are chicken and turkey.

“This report is different from other major research that was published in the past because it came from the World Health Organization, which is a supposed to be objective and independent,” said Neeman. “Their declaration is based on a lot of research, so we are concerned about the matter. I’m not going to dispute the report and say it isn’t right — I take it very seriously.”

On the issue of nitrates, on which the WHO report focused, Neeman he said the carcinogenic risk was created only when meat containing them was heated to temperatures above 140 degrees Celsius.

“That only happens in broiling, not in the microwave in a pot,” he said. “In any case, we’re using nitrates in only small quantities — and if we didn’t use them the results would be worse, like tainted products. You have to take everything in proportion.”

Two years ago Yehiam introduced products made from 100% natural products at similar prices to its normal line of meats, but shoppers didn’t show much interest. In any case, they also contain nitrates.

“Maybe it is because products made from natural ingredients are lighter and have a less intense taste,” said Neeman. “In any event, after the WHO report we’re thinking seriously now about developing other 100% natural products and maybe even finding a way to make them without nitrates.”

Soglowek, the biggest meat processor in Israel, declined to comment on the WHO study. Tirat Zvi, another big producer, restricted its comment to a written statement saying that it “meets all strict instructions and standards of the [Israeli] Health Ministry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and European health organizations.”

The Israeli McDonald’s franchisee, on the other hand, rushed to issue a statement. “The meat sold at McDonald’s Israel is made from 100% lean and unprocessed beef (between 9% and 11% fat only), as recommended by the Israel Cancer Association.”

In a conversation with TheMarker, Ruti Sarid tried to clarify: “There’s a lot of confusion among the public about what is processed meat — in one breath, people put everything into the category, including hamburgers. Hamburgers aren't hot dogs. We don't add water, spices, pickling or other ingredients. All we add is salt and pepper after the broiling."