Israel’s Health Minister Yaakov Litzman didn’t intend to launch a Big Mac attack, but that’s what he’s did this week after he called on the public to refrain from eating junk food and cited McDonald’s by name.
“There’s no need to eat junk food... There’s no need to eat McDonald’s,” Litzman said at the Israel Heart Society’s annual conference on Tuesday, in a rare public attack on a company by a minister, along with a call on consumers to avoid it.
McDonald’s was not slow in responding, going so far as to suggest that Litzman – who heads the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party – was singling out the chain because most of its restaurants are open for business on the Sabbath.
“It’s unfortunate that the health minister chooses to express himself in an unscientific way and opts for populist words that make headlines but don’t accurately reflect what happens at the chain,” a McDonald’s spokesman said in a statement. “For more than a decade McDonald’s Israel has undertaken a comprehensive health revolution that’s won great praise from the medical community.”
Health ministry director general Moshe Bar-Simontov was quick to back up his boss. “This is a battle for hearts and minds,” he told TheMarker. “The world is flooding us with stimuli and we aren’t really freely choosing anything. Advertising, consumer tastes, product placements in stores and food stands – everything is interconnected and consumers are directed to these things more and more, beyond what’s good for our health.”
The Health Ministry has launched a campaign to stem the growth of diabetes among the population. As part of the campaign, it has established a committee to advance healthy eating. The committee’s mandate is to “examine ways to influence the population’s dietary habits, on the one hand, and to improve food ingredients.”
The recent ban on the sale of sugary drinks and foods at kindergartens and schools is also part of the campaign.
In fact, Israelis have cut down on their consumption of meat since the World Health Organization published a report last October warning of the carcinogenic risk of eating processed meats. Two months after the report was published, meat sales were down by double-digits at most supermarkets and hummus sales – a favorite condiment to go with it – have fallen too.
Despite the ministry campaign, sources close to Litzman said the anti-burger broadside was probably unintended.
Hours before he addressed the cardiologist’ conference, Litzman had landed at Ben-Gurion Airport after meetings with the WHO in Geneva. He also met the organization’s director, Margaret Chan, who lauded him as an ally in the global war on junk food. Rather than a calculated attack, Litzman apparently had junk food on his mind when he addressed the doctors.
McDonald’s, which is the country’s largest fast-food chain with some 180 outlets in Israel, defended its menu. Among other things, it said it had reduced fat content in unprocessed meat from 18 percent to 9 percent, removed trans-fats from french fries, reduced saturated fat in fried foods by two-thirds and cut sugar and nitrates in all its products.
“If the health minister had been interested in nutritional science, he would have realized that McDonald’s Israel, after the giant health revolution we have undertaken, is the solution, not the problem,” the chain said.
However, sources in the fast-food industry admitted that the menus at McDonald’s and other fast food chains were less than perfect,
“Minister Litzman seems to have made a mistake – he used the word ‘McDonald’s’ as a generic term for all junk food,” said a source who does business with a rival hamburger chain and asked not to be identified.
McDonald’s, he said, responded to critics of its menu. “Today it offers healthier food. However, it is still not the healthiest chain and the food they offer isn’t health food – and neither is ours. Being healthy isn’t at the heart of our DNA.”
Moran Fleschner, deputy CEO for marketing at the 23-restaurant BBB burger chain, also conceded that fast food isn’t healthy. “We sell french fires – no one can say that this food is the healthiest there is. But we also sell salads and other healthy alternatives,” she said.
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