The Finance Ministry is currently in talks with Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben Dahan (Habayit Hayehudi), in an attempt to reach a groundbreaking agreement that would liberalize the requirements regarding the recognition of food imported into Israel as kosher.
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The move follows other efforts by the government to lower customs duties on some imported food to increase competition in the local food sector, and in the process lower food prices. Strict standards imposed by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate when it comes to recognition of food as kosher (meaning that it complies with Jewish dietary practice) are considered a major obstacles to the importing of cheaper food.
Currently, the Chief Rabbinate insists on recertifying imported food that has kashrut certification from rabbis abroad, meaning that without such approval, the merchandise will not be sold in kosher supermarkets. Although nonkosher food is also sold around the country, the largest supermarket chains sell only kosher merchandise. A major exception is Tiv Taam, which has carved out a niche as a nonkosher food retailer.
In the current contacts between the finance and religious services ministries, the possibility is being explored of enabling the Chief Rabbinate to accept foreign kashrut certification without requiring that the Rabbinate itself confirm that products are kosher. Sources close to the negotiations say it is absurd for the Chief Rabbinate to insist on recertifying the kosher status of imported food, when even the Health Ministry relies on the approval of foreign agencies when it comes to imported food or medicines rather than sending representatives of its own abroad. As an example, they cite the fact that ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn eat cheese from Philadelphia that was certified kosher in the Pennsylvanian city, saying the same should apply also to consumers in Israel.
Major cheese importers cite instances in which kashrut supervisors have inspected the cowsheds from which milk is produced abroad rather than sufficing with an inspection of the dairies that produce the cheese. Such inspections are expensive and involve extensive bureaucracy, to the extent that many dairy product producers abroad simply prefer not to sell in Israel. That in turn limits the range of kosher food available in the country and curbs competition in the retail food sector.
The kashrut inspection requirements for the importation of hard cheese increases the cost of the cheese to the Israeli consumer by some 35%, Israeli cheese importers say, and as a result they are not sold at prices that provide competition with locally produced hard cheese.
Three Israeli dairy firms – Tnuva, Strauss and Tara – dominate the Israeli dairy sector. Fresh meat production is dominated by slaughterhouses owned by Tnuva and Dabach Brothers. And the Central Bottling Company, the Israeli Coca-Cola franchisee, dominates the soft drink sector. Barriers to broader importing of kosher food are considered a major impediment to breaking the domination of these companies.
A team dealing with the cost of food, headed by Finance Ministry director general Yael Andorn, recommended last week that imports of dairy products and fresh meat be allowed into the country duty-free. Officials at the finance and economy ministries are placing great hopes on the proposed move, but concede that it also requires the removal of import barriers due to the current system of kashrut supervision.
The Religious Services Ministry said in response that it is committed to lowering the cost of kashrut and is reviewing the current proposal, adding that the examination of the proposal is in its initial stages.
There is an added complication when it comes to kosher meat imports in light of the shortage of kosher meat in some European markets, amid pressure by animal rights groups to outlaw kosher slaughter practices. Concern has therefore been expressed that even if kosher meat duties are lifted, the domination of the two Israeli slaughterhouses will continue due to the high price of kosher meat in at least some overseas markets.
Discussions with Ben Dahan are only in their initial stages, and the prospects for a breakthrough on the issue are not clear. Liberalization of the current system could jeopardize the jobs of some of the Chief Rabbinate’s kashrut supervision staff. On the other hand, the head of Ben Dahan’s party, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, has ministerial responsibility for efforts to reduce food prices.
The Religious Services Ministry, in conjunction with the Chief Rabbinate, announced a plan two months ago to reduce kashrut supervision expenses. But the Rabbinate still dominates the field, and the plan is geared in part to stamp out private kashrut certification authorities that have sprung up in recent years. It is not clear to what extent the Chief Rabbinate would wish to relinquish some of its power.