Months After WHO Warning, Israelis Still Shunning Salami

Sales of processed meat down by the double digits and makers are firing workers and launching healthier alternatives

One-man line at a supermarket meat counter.
Eyal Toueg

Several months after the World Health Organization issued a warning on the dangers of processed meats, linking them to cancer, Israelis have defied the predictions of meat processors that the impact would be short-lived.

Israeli consumers are still shunning hot dogs, hamburgers and salami following last October’s report. Now, makers are laying off employees and promoting alternatives to the preservatives the United Nations organization highlighted as possible carcinogens on a par with cigarettes.

Last month, the market research company Nielsen reported that retail sales of hamburgers were down 25% from a year ago, sales of hot dogs were down 33%, pastrami sales were off 26% and salami was down 27.5%.

If Israel’s meat industry has any cause for hope, it’s that the double-digit declines for the last month were slightly lower than in December, but not by a lot. On the other hand, meat sales were in long-term decline amid growing awareness of health issues even before the WHO report, so the prospects for a complete recovery look slim.

“We’re looking at what’s happening and making the required changes at our plant from the prospective of costs versus demand, which has plunged overnight,” said Akiva Pollak, CEO of Tirat Zvi, a maker – half owned by Tnuva – of cold cuts, which has laid off 10% of its 300-person payroll.

“We’ve pretty much done away with overtime and have one shift per day, down from two previously,” he said.

At Maadaney Yehiam, another meat processor, the plant has gone down to a four-day workweek some weeks, or cut one out of two shifts a day. Soglowek axed 37 workers in the past year, although the company said those preceded the WHO report and were aimed at making operations more efficient.

Tirat Zvi saw its sales of salami products plunge 34.5% in December from the same period in 2014, while hot dog sales fell more than 23% and pastrami sales were down 23%, according to Nielsen figures.

Pollak said the declines, like for the rest of the industry, were more moderate last month compared to November. “Unfortunately, I don’t think sales will return to the pre-WHO report levels. The declines will moderate slowly, but they’ll remain,” he said.

Meat processors are determined not to go down without a fight and are now promoting healthier alternatives.

Soglowek, for instance, introduced a “natural” salami nearly five years ago, but quickly abandoned the effort in the face of disappointing sales. But with sales of salami down by more than a third last month, the company tried again last week, introducing salami without preservatives with a label that differentiates it from its other products.

Its retail price is a lot higher, but Soglowek is hoping the new, higher level of health consciousness will overcome shopper resistance. It also relaunched preservative-free hamburgers and kebabs, two products that have been on the market since 2011 without attracting much shopper interest.

Maadaney Yehiam also has products with what it calls 100%-natural preservatives that have been on the market more than a year without attracting much notice. Like Soglowek, the company is going to relaunch the products with new branding and introduce other completely new products.

Other companies are affixing labels on many of their unprocessed meat products, advertising that they contain no preservatives. These categories of meat weren’t cited in the WHO warning but have suffered guilt by association.

Neto, an importer, now labels that its hamburgers and kebabs are “Ground from unprocessed meat without preservatives.” Baladi, a local maker of prepared meats, plans to do the same. McDonald’s Israel, meanwhile, has launched an ad campaign with the slogan, “Not processed, no additives.”

The meat industry is also hoping that Israel’s Health Ministry will reverse a recommendation it made when the WHO report came out that Israelis limit their consumption of processed meat to once a month, especially for children. The WHO, at least, said after the storm its original report had created that it wasn’t urging people to swear off processed meat and had made no recommendation about how often it should be eaten.

So, if Israelis are cutting back on their meat, what are they buying and eating instead?

Data from another market researcher, StoreNext, indicates that the answer is soft cheese, whose sales were up 19%; honey, up 17%; yellow cheese, up 11%; and halvah, whose sales rose 10% in November and December, compared with the same time in 2014.