Officials Failed to Act Even After Produce Shortage Looked Imminent

Food industry sources say the shortage is likely to worsen ahead of the Simhat Torah holiday.

Eyal Toueg

Israeli shoppers have seen prices for fresh produce rise sharply over the past two weeks, amid a shortage of basics like cucumbers and tomatoes, but officials waited until it was too late before they authorized imports to supplement the supply.

As of Wednesday the price of tomatoes had climbed to as much as 11.50 shekels ($2.92) a kilogram in the wholesale market, according to the price-tracking website Yerekom. Dubi Amitai, president of the Farmers Association of Israel, said they were unlikely to decline for another two weeks when the next harvest reaches wholesalers or imports start arriving in Israel.

On the other hand, cucumber prices suddenly dropped Wednesday, to 3.30 shekels a kilogram from 10.50 shekels. Sources attributed the drop to the absence of demand from food retailers and shoppers at such high prices, but they warned that if demand returns prices will likely shoot up again.

In any case, as of Wednesday supermarket chains such as Super-Sol and Mega had not passed on the price drops to consumers and were selling cucumbers for 8 to 9 shekels a kilogram. But the two promised to lower prices as soon as they had sold off existing stock bought at higher wholesale prices.

Meanwhile, the shortage of fresh produce expanded this week to chicken and eggs on Wednesday and yesterday shortages of fresh milk and cottage cheese began to emerge. In all case, some groceries had limited supplies while others sold off their stock by the middle of the day; all reported getting smaller deliveries than usual.

Food industry sources said the shortage was likely to worsen ahead of the Simhat Torah holiday, which begins Sunday evening. Consumers will only get relief Wednesday and Thursday next week when shelves begin to fill up again, they said.

Agriculture Ministry officials should have been readying for a shortfall of produce in August, when the combination of two intense heat waves and the outbreak of a virus in domestic tomato crops threatened to slash harvests. Sources in the farmers association estimate that the heat reduced the tomato harvest by 40% and the virus by another 10%.

Meanwhile, Israel was heading into the High Holy Days, starting with Rosh Hashana in mid-September and ending only next week with Simhat Torah, when demand is especially high.

“The government knew in advance about the problem and didn’t prepare for imports,” said Adi Cohen, CEO of the Tiv-Tam supermarket chain.

“If the government had given importers even two days’ advance notice to make up the shortfall, there would have been no shortages. But the government allows groups like the Poultry Board to create shortage,” he said.

Blind followers

Sources in the farming sector said they were surprised the lack of action by the ministry. “They follow the farmer blindly and if the farmers want to raise prices, the ministry won’t get in their way,” said one.

Agriculture Minster Uri Ariel only took action — ordering the relaxation of quotas on duty-free imports — after retail prices for produce began rising four weeks ago and shortages began emerging that drew the attention of the media. He also asked the treasury to suspend taxes on imports of 10,000 live sheep and 1,000 tons of frozen mutton until the end of the year.

This week Ariel and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon confirmed the plans, but this time made clear the easing would be limited to prevent flooding the markets. Meanwhile, the Agriculture Ministry is trying persuading the treasury to fund aid for importers who fail to sell their produce.

The Agriculture Ministry also approved egg imports, but so late that it is unlikely to ease the shortage. Ariel also appealed to the kashrut department of the Chief Rabbinate to extend work hours for ritual slaughters during the intermediate days of Sukkot. Normally they work only half-days, but they reportedly agreed to work full days Tuesday and Wednesday this week.

Agriculture and finance ministry officials claim imports have already begun reaching stores, but a survey by TheMarker found little evidence of that.

Sources attributed the shortage of poultry to the fact that this week was not only the Jewish holiday of Sukkot but the Muslim holiday of Id al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice, which meant even fewer slaughterers than usual were reporting to work. They attributed the egg shortage to unspecified planning errors by the Agriculture Minstry and the Poultry Board.

Meantime, cottage cheese was scare on store shelves yesterday. Tnuva, which accounts for 75% of all cottage cheese sales in Israel, blamed a perfect storm of production delays and the special qualities of cottage cheese — its long, 40-hour production process and short shelf life, of less than two weeks.

“Because the High Holy Days are all occurring midweek this year, there are fewer production days and so there may be shortages of various products,” the company said in a statement. “All of Tnuva’s dairies are working to capacity on non-holiday and Sabbath days and are making every effort to make up for the shortfalls.”