The Agriculture Ministry strutted proudly this week after announcing the capture of more than 40 tons of bootleg frozen meat smuggled into Israel from the Palestinian Authority, a mission accomplished with the police and tax inspectors. However, some sources at the Agriculture Ministry itself shrug that the whole thing was a public-relations sham and that food smuggling is not only rampant – nobody knows how much is really going on.
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“The Agriculture Ministry’s ‘Pitzuah’ unit in charge of supervising flora and fauna can’t stop most of the smuggling. Its lousy performance has been written about before, in the state comptroller’s report from 2010,” a high-ranking source at the ministry told TheMarker. “Now along comes Roi Kliger, head of the ‘Pitzuah’ unit, and preens that he confiscated the meat and accuses restaurateurs [in Israel] of being to blame – though the fact that this meat reaches the restaurants in the first place is a snafu of the unit that he himself heads.”
Some restaurateur or butcher who gets vacuum-packaged frozen meat with what seem to be the right stamps on it can’t know for sure where it came from, says the Agriculture Ministry source. “The only thing all this proves is that the Agriculture Ministry doesn’t know how to supervise meat, just as it doesn’t know how to do a lot of other things. What Israel needs is a single central food authority that would be in charge of things like this.”
The ministry official also begs to note that nobody ever proved the smuggled meat poses a health hazard. “The meat isn’t kosher, so the rabbinate has an interest in keeping it out of Israel,” he says. “There is also an interest of the meat producers and importers – Tnuva, Dabah and Neto – to keep this meat, which costs a fraction of the price, out of Israel, so prices don’t drop. But to the best of my knowledge, nobody has proven that there is a problem with the meat.”
Beyond that, catching the smuggled viands so near to the Passover holiday is likely to jack up the price of meat in Israel, the official goes on to suggest. “The timing of the move was horrible, as far as prices are concerned. Meat consumption rises toward Passover, and then again toward Independence Day. The smuggled meat costs relatively less and pushed prices down. Now that it will disappear, prices will rise again,” he says. “You need to understand that this meat achieved a not-inconsiderable market share. It was being sold everywhere – in restaurants, at butcher shops and at some of the retail chains too.”
Dr. Nadav Galon, manager of the veterinary services at the Agriculture Ministry, rejects the argument that nobody proved there’s a problem with the illegal meat. “There isn’t a country in the world that would rule that unsupervised meat is edible,” he says. “Who could tell the consumer that he can eat unsupervised meat? In every Western nation, the state’s practice is that if meat production is not supervised by the proper authorities, it is considered unfit for human consumption.”
The supervisory process starts at the cowshed and includes the food the cattle (or sheep or whatever) eat, how the cows (etc.) are housed, what medications they are given and what pesticides are used (for instance, to kill fleas). The next stages of supervision are over the slaughterhouse, then over the meat cutting and processing plants. When the meat reaches the store, supervision passes to the Health Ministry and the local government.
Rabbi’s little helper
Chats with another senior Agriculture Ministry official and with veterinarians who work with restaurants lead to the suspicion that the true extent of meat smuggling into Israel is completely unknown.
The smuggling is going to continue until the cost of obtaining kashrut certification goes down. How much does it cost? About a third of the price of the meat to the consumer, that’s how much. Vets claim it would be easy to lower the cost of certifying the kashrut of meat: Just lower the costs of the rabbis’ envoys overseas. Also, the rabbinate could make its demands more flexible, they say.
Importers say that the kashrut costs of imported frozen meat includes sending 10-14-man teams for weeks at a time, to each plant in South America that sends meat to Israel. There the rabbis’ envoys supervise the processes of slaughter, salting, packaging and freezing.
According to government sources, the cost of each such envoy reaches as much as $7,000 a month, which works out to about 350,000 shekels a year. If the team is responsible for (say) the production of 500 tons of meat, then the cost of the team is 70 agorot per kilo of meat.
Frozen meat, with regular kashrut certification, arrives in Israel at a cost of 20 shekels per kilo on average. When the kashrut certification is of a higher degree, that costs significantly more – perhaps as much as three to five shekels per kilo, industry insiders estimate. The profits of the rabbis who grant kashrut high-end certification can reach six million to 20 million shekels a year, depending on the volume of meat brought over. Industry insiders estimate that high-end kashrut meat constitutes as much as 25 percent of sales.
That Passover rush
The Agriculture Ministry firmly rejects the allegations that its supervisors are spurred by rabbis trying to preserve their status. “The true extent of smuggling is impossible to know, but every interruption is important and certainly a huge seizure like the recent one is important,” says the ministry source, adding that the media reports should also create deterrence.
“The ministry has no tools to find out any of them knew what the source of the meat was, or not,” says the ministry source. “They are not supposed to be able to detect fakes unless something screams to the skies. The issue is under investigation and if some restaurateur is found to have been involved, he will be punished accordingly.”
As for the quality of the smuggled meat, he said, “I do not know anyone who wants to eat meat that has not undergone veterinary inspection.”
Earlier this week, nine Israelis and Palestinians were arrested for allegedly smuggling unsupervised meat into Israel from the Palestinian territories and selling it, with forged kashrut certifications, to Israeli shops and restaurants, including high-end establishments. Officials also confiscated cash and vehicles with secret compartments. Kliger said the recipients bought the suspicious meat on the cheap – entrecote steak for 60 shekels ($16) a kilo instead of 120 shekels, and sirloin at 40 shekels a kilo instead of 100 shekels. “When you buy meat at a 50 percent discount on the market price, it needs to set off alarm bells,” Kliger said.
“Every year smuggling from the territories into Israel ramps up around Passover and Rosh Hashanah, especially when the Jewish holidays coincide with Muslim and Druze holidays,” the Agriculture Ministry commented. It also said that over the last three years, it has frustrated over 363 attempts to smuggle meat – totaling some 729 tons, not including the latest coup.
Good name tarnished
Brand-name chefs finding themselves at the center of the media foofaraw – because they allegedly bought this prohibited flesh and served it to paying customers – are furious at the conduct of the Agriculture Ministry and the press, too.
Chef Hussam Abbas of the Elbabor chain says the restaurateurs are absolutely in the right. “They received goods from a merchant, with all the requisite permits and tests, and if the mommy and daddy of those goods isn’t kosher, that isn’t their fault,” he says. “In any case, even if the restaurants made a mistake, it isn’t necessary to do what the Agriculture Ministry is doing to them and publicize their identity. They could settle for a fine or punishment, but why lynch in the city square?”
The Elbabour restaurant in Umm al-Fahm (there are others in Acre and in Yokneam) was raided by police in September 2014, and closed down after the discovery of 300 kilos of meat defined as “unfit for human consumption” plus various health violations. It was allowed to reopen after fixing the violations.
“For 30 years I have been buying fresh meat, skewering it and then freezing it, then thawed it and sold the product. I never knew that was against the law,” Abbas says. “You can tell a person he made a mistake, you can fine him, but what they did to me was wrong. To this day this story is affecting me. I haven’t been able to fix the damage.”
Chef Avi Levy of the restaurant Hamotzi in Jerusalem thinks there’s a problem with a country that “first crucifies the person, then checks the facts. I know what it’s like when your good name is tarnished after you worked so hard for it.”
Three months ago the Health Ministry raided Hamotzi and announced that the food was being prepared on the premises without proper business licensing and without proper production licensing, in poor sanitary conditions to boot. Levy presets things otherwise. “The Health Ministry came my restaurant in Jerusalem with a video crew in the middle of the day, and started to throw out vast amounts of meat because it had been in the freezer but not inside boxes. I think that boxes inside the freezer encourage pests.”
The affair did him damage, Levy says, but since then, things have picked up. Still, he says, he figures some people still shun Hamotzi because it ostensibly sold meat not fit for human consumption. He’s also confident that restaurants named and shamed for using smuggled Palestinian meat are going to hurt.
In response to the allegations by Abbas and Levy, the Health Ministry commented that “it is astonishing how stories are spun. Somebody selling meat not fit for human consumption suddenly becomes the victim and the Health Ministry, which is looking out for the public health, is accused of warning the public about health hazards. We find this a little confusing.”