Israel's Health Minister Clashes With EU Rep Over Strict New Food-labelling Rules

A European Union attache condemned Israel's new food-labelling laws as 'radical,' something the health minister did not take lightly

Israeli Health Minister Yaacov Litzman arrives at a weekly cabinet meeting, October, 2017.
Israeli Health Minister Yaacov Litzman arrives at a weekly cabinet meeting, October, 2017. Mark Israel Salem

The first debate of the Knesset Health Committee over proposed Health Ministry regulations requiring warning labels on foods deemed unhealthy turned into a perfect storm as industry lobbyists and public health professionals squared off.

Even a representative for the European Union – Sandor Szelekovszky, the embassy’s trade and economic section head – weighed in, sparking the ire of Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who has been a strong advocate of the new rules.

Szelekovszky scored the Health Ministry plan as a “radical” model similar to one used in Chile that wouldn’t succeed in its objectives of promoting better eating. He said that was the European experience with similar labeling requirements.

But before he could finish his remarks, Litzman interrupted. “Because we’re the worst in the world [for obesity and diabetes] we need to take radical measures,” he said.

Szelekovszky resumed his remarks, noting that Israel is part of the developed world, to which Litzman again interrupted him and said, “I’m not interested in economics but in health and that we are the worst in the world, so we have to take radical measures.”

The Health Ministry regulations would require food makers to put red labels on food products that exceed maximum levels of sodium, sugar and saturated fats. Other rules would require that sugar content be illustrated by teaspoon icons. Products deemed healthful will be able to carry a green label.

But Szelekovszky termed the spoon icon “disproportionate” and warned that exporters would shun the Israeli market, food prices would go up and poorer people would buy cheaper, less healthful products.

Agains Litzman interrupted him. “I’m confident that in another three years [the EU] be doing the same thing as us,” he retorted.

Moshe Bar-Siman-Tov, the Health Ministry director general, said the rules were needed, citing statistics showing that 10,000 Israelis die every year from an unhealthy lifestyle, mainly poor eating. Six years ago, one out of every five first graders was deemed overweight; today the figure is one in three, he said.

But Dan Carmeli, a lawyer representing the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, representing food importers, said the Chilean precedent was a poor one for Israel. He said prices would rise as much as 50% for products and that shoppers, according to a Nielsen survey, do look at nutritional information that already appears on the back of products.

But Prof. Itamar Raz, a diabetes specialist who was on the committee that prepared the rules, asserted that the red label were necessary and needed to be complemented by other parts of the regulatory package limiting advertising of unhealthful food to children. “If it ends just with labeling, it won’t accomplish anything,” he warned.