Israeli Food Companies on Edge, Step Up Food Warnings

Makers fear being the next Unilever, which is losing sales for waiting to reveal its salmonella problem.

Illustration
Amos Biderman

Since last Tuesday, no fewer than six warnings have been issued by Israeli food companies about their products.

But industry sources say the wave of alerts doesn’t represent a growing problem of contaminated food but heightened fear of the consequences of finding out about the problem too late.

That is what happened to Unilever Israel, which delayed making any announcement about the problem of the salmonella bacteria in its Telma Cornflakes and other breakfast cereals and, when it did, denied any of the tainted products left its plant. It later had to retract the claim.

Sales of the company’s breakfast cereals, including brands not suspect of contamination, have since fallen 50%-60% amid shopper anger and confusion.

Since Unilever’s problems surfaced, other companies have issued warnings. Last Tuesday, SuperPharm said its private-label granola bars were infested with insects. Two days later, recall notices for salmonella-tainted tehina were sent out by a company called Prince, as well as for Shamir Salads and the private-label brands it makes, among them Super-Sol.

Meanwhile, the Bereshit Dairy said its camel milk was contaminated and two children were hospitalized as a result. Another food maker, Milotal, told supermarkets to remove many of its frozen French fries from freezer cases after the listeria bacteria was found in them. On Friday, it issued a wider recall covering all its frozen French fries.

“The events of the last few weeks have caused food makers to reexamine their quality-control systems because no one wants to be the next company that’s caught,” said one food executive, who asked not to be named.

“Everyone is afraid and checking very carefully everything that happens in the plant – raw materials that got from another maker or products they have already delivered to stores. No one wants to be the next headline,” he said.

At a Thursday news conference, the Health Ministry said there had been no increase in reports of salmonella over the past year, but it may not be aware of problems. Health clinics and hospitals don’t always perform blood tests on people with fevers, chills or diarrhea, so bacterial infections may not always be detected.

The salmonella scare compounds the health concerns that have been driving shoppers away from popular categories of foods over the last several months. Sales of hummus and prepared salads had fallen 10%-15% even before the Unilever affair surfaced over concerns about packaged foods. More people are preparing salads from scratch at home or buying from delicatessens where it is freshly made.

The latest scare caused sales of prepared salads to drop 20% and even 30% Thursday and Friday last week. “Everyone in the category has been hurt, not just Shamir Salads,” said one food-retail executive, who added that Shamir sales plunged 90%.

Food makers are trying to assuage fears. “We’ve enhanced our customer service system because people are calling in a panic and saying, ‘I have a packaged salad but I don’t know whether I should be eating it,’” he said.

Shoppers are confused by the complicated relationships among makers. The Prince foodmaker provided the tehina used in Shamir Salads and Shamir, in turn, produced private-label brands for others, so the problems at Prince affected products its name doesn’t appear on.