"Fresh farm eggs" proclaim the labels on egg cartons. Tnuva egg cartons, for example, show a hen standing on a green patch with a nearby blue tractor hinting at the blue and white - therefore local - provenance of the product. The cartons containing eggs supplied by M. Lesser show a hen basking in warm sunlight, surrounded by greenery.
From the cartons, one would think that the eggs were laid maybe a day or two earlier on some pastoral Galilee kibbutz. The truth is that Israel has imported hundreds of millions of eggs in recent years, 62% of them from Turkey.
These are the Agriculture Ministry's figures, revealed in a class action motion. Though just 3% of the eggs sold in Israel are imported, that's still more than 80 million a year, and counting.
The law clearly states that the country of origin must be stamped in indelible ink on any egg imported and sold in this country. But the law is one thing and its implementation is another. Every year, tens of millions of eggs are brought in, mainly around Passover and Rosh Hashanah, with no mark of origin.
Poultry officials claim multiple entities collude to hide these facts from the Israeli consumer. Importers and distributors, veterinarians at the Agriculture Ministry entrusted with enforcing the law, and the Poultry Board itself are involved, officials allege.
The egg market is big, turning over NIS 710 million a year. The dominant player is Tnuva with a 44% market share, followed by Glicksman with 21% and M. Lesser with 10%.
Combined, these three companies control 75% of the local market (as of April ), according to market research firm Nielsen. Tnuva just distributes, but Glicksman and Lesser are involved from the hen to the grocery store.
Attorneys Dror Sherman, Lior Landau and Tomer Levi, representing the plaintiff Eyal Goldberg, are seeking NIS 334 million from egg distributors including Tnuva Food Industries, Glicksman and M. Lesser.
The companies import eggs and the veterinary services let them through even though they aren't marked as required, the suit claims. The eggs are then sold to people who don't know where their meal is from, or whether the chickens were immunized against salmonella, says Yehuda Meirovitch, formerly deputy chief of veterinary services in the Agriculture Ministry.
Poultry sector sources accuse Meirovitch of bearing a grudge against the ministry and its former head, Shalom Simhon. Other senior officials, including some at the ministry, support Meirovitch's claim of improprieties.
Yaakov Cohen, secretary general of the poultry farmers association, blames the regulator and the ministry, not the importers. He also says Turkey tends to send its better-quality eggs to Europe and the inferior ones to Israel.
Israelis prefer local produce
It may be that consumers are being left in the dark on the assumption that Israelis wouldn't want imported eggs, especially if the origin is Turkey.
The plaintiffs argue that based on a Trade and Industry Ministry survey, 83% of consumers would prefer to buy local produce, given similar quality and price. A survey carried out by the Dahaf Institute on behalf of the law firm filing the suit indicates that 85% of consumers don't realize that some of the eggs they buy may be imported.
Agriculture officials admit the law hasn't been enforced for years, but insist that imported eggs are still subject to "all the strict veterinary criteria applying to locally-produced eggs."
The Agriculture Ministry spokesman admits that the law requiring eggs to be labeled with the country of origin hasn't been enforced, but vowed that it would be from September.
In the meantime, unlabeled eggs continue to arrive, with consumers remaining unaware.
Salmonella shot: Optional only
Not only is information concealed, but the risks of getting salmonella poisoning from imported eggs is still being debated.
Salmonella is one of the most common infections in humans and animals. The outcome could range from diarrhea to severe impairment. Israeli farmers must immunize their egg-laying hens. But what of the chickens laying imported eggs? There is no rule requiring eggs to originate from immunized hens.
This is worrisome, if one considers a Poultry Science article in 2010, maintaining that more than half the samples from egg-laying hens in Turkey had salmonella.
This indicates the presence of very high levels in the entire egg-laying population.
The researchers suggested low safety standards and improper application of procedures as some of the reasons underlying high salmonella levels in the Turkish poultry industry.
People connected with the industry in Israel say the reliability and efficiency of egg inspection after arrival is also questionable. In fact, all the experts Haaretz talked to, as well as senior veterinarians presently or previously employed by the government, agreed that the inspection of imported eggs is inadequate for detection of salmonella.
Attorney Sherman claims inspectors don't even open egg containers upon arrival in Israel: "We have a recording ... of a port official named Dr. Zukin, who works for the veterinary services, and who states that she never sees or even smells an egg. All she sees is paperwork, geared to clearing the importer through the port."
Agriculture Ministry officials claim that their inspectors look at the health records and certificates signed by veterinarians in the country of origin, and compare these to the bill of lading. The current temperature of the egg shipment, as well as records of temperatures throughout its transportation, is also monitored, they say.
There are sample spot checks but experts claim they can't rule out the presence of salmonella.
"Random sampling cannot accurately assess the health status of entire batches," says poultry disease expert. "You could have one contaminated egg in 10,000, which would be missed using this method."
Another expert in poultry diseases, who used to work for the veterinary services, says their representatives visit some of the farms in Turkey, but that won't do the job. They don't monitor the farms; they glance at sanitary conditions but no more, says the expert.
"Immunization is usually 100% effective, whereas monitoring is only good for detection," he added.
"Random sampling is meaningless", says Meirovitch. "The Turks say, as one would expect, that they inspect for salmonella, but veterinary standards in Turkey are a far cry from those in Israel. If one claims that Turkish standards are satisfactory, label the eggs and let the consumer decide if he wishes to buy an egg from Israel or Turkey. The way things stand, eggs are imported and sold as Tnuva or Glicksman eggs."
Ministry of Farmers
There are those in the industry who say importing eggs and avoiding their labeling is possible only through collusion between the Ministry of Agriculture, the distributors and the Poultry Board. This collaboration, these sources say, stems from the interests of the Poultry Board that represents the poultry farmers.
"In recent years, unfortunately, the veterinary services unit has become an extension of the Poultry Board. The Ministry of Agriculture has become the Ministry of Farmers, and the Poultry Board has evolved into a representative of Tnuva and the tycoons standing behind it. The Poultry Board is now a rich and powerful body that has become an employer of a sector of the veterinary services unit. There is a state comptroller's report substantiating this claim," says Meirovitch.
That report, from 2002, states that "the working relationship between the Poultry Board and the veterinary services unit hinders services given and hampers their administrative functioning, a situation which is detrimental to public health." The report also finds that "there is a clear conflict of interest between the Board and the veterinary services unit. The Board represents the financial interests of poultry farmers, whereas the vets are responsible for control and supervision."
People familiar with the industry say that the Ministry of Agriculture and the Poultry Board, disconcertingly, have long been familiar with the problems surrounding imported eggs. "There should be a total separation between the supervisory agent and the board, but this has not been the case for years," admits a senior veterinarian.
Immunization fee not charged
Immunizing against salmonella has implications not only for public health, but also for the pricing of eggs. The current price includes NIS 3 per egg to cover the immunizing of the hens, according to a letter sent by Uri Tsav-Bar, senior deputy director of the department of finance and strategy in the Ministry of Agriculture, to the law firm requesting the class action suit. Thus, for every 12-egg carton, consumers pay NIS 36 to ensure salmonella-free eggs.
Imported eggs are not subject to compulsory immunization, and a declaration of regular monitoring by the exporting country suffices. The price, however, is not reduced accordingly, claim the plaintiffs in the proposed class action suit. "The health certificate signed by a veterinarian in the country of origin testifies that the laying hens were either immunized or were part of a monitored population. When buying eggs from Turkey, consumers should wonder why they are required to pay for immunization that was possibly never administered," says the expert formerly employed by the veterinary services unit.
"Immunization against salmonella is a requirement here, but not in Turkey. The costs for it are paid by consumers regardless of whether it actually takes place", says Cohen. "If there is genuine concern for consumers, it is wrong to mislead them by importing eggs from Turkey and charging for services not rendered."
See you in court
Glicksman egg distributors responded by saying all charges against them have no factual or legal basis. They prefer to counter these charges in court.
Tnuva responded by claiming that charges against them are ungrounded in fact and have no legal basis. Tnuva will respond in court.
M. Lesser countered by saying all charges are unfounded and ridiculous. They will respond soon in court. The Agriculture Ministry's response was that in its many dealings with consumer affairs it always strives to separate between local and imported produce. As an example it pointed to the requirement for labeling imported garlic to distinguish it from the local product. From the ministry's viewpoint, unlabeled produce is detrimental to the producer as well as the consumer. As for imported eggs, there is a clear ordinance in the directive regulating goods and services, requiring the labeling of eggs to indicate their country of origin. Unfortunately, this has not been enforced. Veterinary services have now decided to implement the enforcement. Starting in September, importers will have to label each egg, the ministry said. As this requires some reorganization, enforcement is delayed until then, giving importers some time to get ready. In any case, current import licenses are valid until September, with no possibility of changing the terms already agreed on. Enforcement will apply to all new import licences issued, said the ministry.
"As to supervision over the health standards of imported eggs, the import permits state that these must comply with the stricter veterinary standards applying to local eggs. Ministry inspectors handling imported eggs examine the accompanying health certificates and verify that a government veterinarian in the country of origin signed a declaration certifying that the eggs come from farms that were inspected and found to be free of salmonella. Testing for salmonella can only be done on the farm itself, which is how things are done at present. Since testing eggs directly is ineffective, there is no point in performing these tests after their arrival," the ministry continued.
Regarding immunization against salmonella, it is wrong to think that it necessarily implies a salmonella-free environment, the ministry maintained. In most Western countries, there is no immunization in salmonella-free regions, but rather a close on-going monitoring to ensure that no cases crop up. In areas where its presence is possible, immunization is carried out to prevent recurrence.
The decision to immunize or not is based on numerous and complex variables, such as the absence of salmonella in a given area, the standards of safety on farms and the number of farms actively inspected, said the ministry. Thus, opting for monitoring over immunization is not an indicator of high risk, but rather the opposite. Furthermore, representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture perform tests at the farms of origin (for all imports involving livestock ), check veterinary supervision, and inspect all the intermediate stations between the farms and the ports of export, such as sorting facilities and slaughterhouses. In the coming months, as part of the ministry's supervisory strategy, its chief supervisor over imports of products originating in livestock will visit farms in Turkey which supply eggs for export to Israel. In previous visits, the ministry's veterinarians determined that the standards of supervision in Turkey meet the standards required here.
On pricing of immunization, there is no directive regarding the pricing of imported eggs, the ministry noted. The pricing of local eggs takes into account the marginal contribution of imported eggs as well, for better or worse.
The Poultry Board's response was that the whole issue of imported eggs was strictly under the authority of the veterinary services unit in the Ministry of Agriculture.