Food Makers in Israel Admit They Don’t Test for Harmful Bacteria

Israeli law doesn't require company to conduct microbiological tests of products or report contamination in their plants.

A production line at the the Shamir Salads factory.
Eyal Toueg

The spate of reports over the last two weeks about harmful bacteria and viruses in Israeli food products has led to concerns that food isn’t being properly supervised for safety.

Unilever Israel, whose failure to report the salmonella contamination of breakfast cereals in its factory launched has given rise to the fears, in fact may not have violated any regulations. Israeli law does not require companies to conduct bacterial testing of products before they are sold, or to report contamination in their plants, as long as they believe no contaminated products have left the factory.

But now the effectiveness of the Health Ministry’s supervision of such matters is in doubt.

Unilever’s claim that no contaminated products left the factory turned out to be false. Shamir Salads, which shipped refrigerated prepared salads made with ingredients from a second company called Prince Tehina but never tested them for salmonella, was under no obligation to carry out such tests.

Abroad, regulations on food recalls are much stricter and companies customarily report incidents of contaminated food and how they addressed it. Such information also appears centrally on government websites.

On Thursday, Shamir Salads issued a recall notice for its chilled hummus and tehina after it discovered suspected salmonella contamination. It was later revealed that Strauss and Tzabar also purchased contaminated tehina from Prince but they discovered the problem almost two weeks earlier.

Strauss and Tzabar discovered the contamination during ingredient testing that costs each company an estimated tens of millions of shekels every year.

A test for Strauss, which distributes Prince products and uses them in its own salads, disclosed suspected salmonella contamination. Strauss reported its findings to Prince, as did Tzabar the next day after its own tests turned up similar results.

But Prince did not report the results from Strauss and Tzabar to the Health Ministry or to Shamir.

A food industry executive speaking on condition of anonymity said that because Strauss is a global company and most of its operations are abroad, its testing standards are stricter than those required by Israeli law.

“I don’t want to accuse Shamir Salads because they have problems, but when they say ‘we received laboratory tests from the supplier and that is supposed to be good enough,’ they are not wrong according to the law,” he says.

Testing delays sales

A senior executive at a medium-size Israeli food maker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, admitted to TheMarker that his company does not conduct microbiological tests on all its products before they are shipped to stores.

“We conduct sample tests for our major products, which we think are more sensitive to bacterial contamination. We test a sample from every batch and wait up to four days for preliminary results before selling to stores,” he says.

He adds that no testing is done on products regarded as less sensitive to bacterial contamination. Until a few years ago they didn’t even test the more sensitive products, but after a big scandal involving products that were contaminated with listeria being shipped to stores, the company increased testing and quality control, said the executive.

“There are tests that take four days to come back. The Health Ministry allows manufacturers to sell the products, and only if the test comes back abnormal after a few days the product is out there — then we make a recall,” says a senior executive at a large food manufacturer. “That is what happens a lot of time, and the products are out there in the meantime.”

“There are places around the world that bar products from going out into the market until the lab tests come back, ” he adds. Manufacturers have no interest in waiting because they lose a few days of shelf life, but it does reduce the number of recalls, he says.

The law does not state what needs to be tested, and each manufacturer does what it wants, says a midsized food maker who also exports his products, and has a Good Manufacturing Practice certification. “I think it should be changed,” he says.

Some 80 Israeli companies have the GMP certification and they sample every batch for microbiological issues and only ship them after the results come in, he says. Even then, contaminated products sometimes reach stores, because in a consignment of 2,000 items, sometimes some will be tainted. Israel has over 1,000 food manufacturers and it is likely that some do not conduct microbiological tests at all, or test once for every few production runs because it is complicated and expensive, and requires not selling the goods for a few days, he says.

“The Health Ministry only requires that the final product be okay. [The ministry] does not require us to conduct quality control throughout the process,” says a senior executive at a major food manufacturer. Various bacterial incidents are found during the quality control process, it happens a few times a month, and they are dealt with on the production line, he says. But this is done without any publicity or informing the Health Ministry, “which doesn’t want to know about it because they have nothing to do with it. Why do they need to be in the picture if you deal with it before it is sent to the consumer?” he says.

Do the recent events need to lead to change?

“The ball is in the Health Ministry’s court. They are expected to bring clarity and stop the chaos. They need to tell manufacturers what they need to report to the Health Ministry and the public, and when, what they need to check before selling food to stores, to say how many certified food engineers need to be in every factory according to the size, etc.,” says a media adviser representing several food companies.

The Health Ministry claims that despite the recent incidents, the regulations do not need to change — and they do not need to require companies to wait until the first results come back to ship products to stores, or to report to the ministry on contamination found in the factory.

Under the law, the manufacturer is prohibited from selling food that does not meet the legal standards, for example if it contains bacteria, said Eli Gordon, the head of the National Food Service in the Health Ministry, at a press conference on Thursday after the latest case of bacterial contamination. “It is the manufacturer’s responsibility and they bear responsibility.”

Gordon said it was impossible to require companies to wait for the initial laboratory results before shipping products and “every product requires different procedures according to the type of product, its shelf life and more.”

At the same time, the ministry admits it has only limited ability to oversee food manufacturers. For example, the last visit — before the latest incident hit the headlines — to the Unilever factory in Arad, where the contaminated breakfast cereals originated was in October 2015. Many other such factories are only inspected annually. And Unilever’s other three factories were not inspected, only the one in Arad.

“The Health Ministry cannot test and be everywhere,” said Itamar Grotto, the head of Public Health Services and deputy director general of the Health Ministry. When the new Food Law was legislated, the supervisory standards were made appropriate to those in Israel and the rest of the world, he says. “If manufacturers send out abnormal products, they are criminals,” he said.

A report from the State Comptroller on supervising the food industry in Israel, released in May, said the decentralization of responsibilities for oversight of the food industry could well endanger public health. The report cited the case of a certain dairy that had serious sanitation problems in producing and storing milk , including insects in the production line and mold in the storage area.

Exports denied, local sales allowed

As a result, the Agriculture Ministry canceled the dairy’s export permit. But the Health Ministry did not rescind its production license and allowed the dairy to continue to sell its products in Israel. The State Comptroller’s Office reiterated the need for establishing a national food authority to protect the public health, as is the case in developed Western nations.

The report also stated that the public health laboratories and the private ones do not have the capabilities to test whether a specific product has specific bacteria or food components, some of which are dangerous or carcinogenic. In addition, many other countries do not allow the sale of poultry contaminated with salmonella, such as the United States, Denmark and Sweden; while in Israel such poultry may be sold. The report recommended the establishment of a national laboratory for public health.

The CEO of private consumer organization Emun Hatzibur, Ronen Regev-Kabir, says the Health Ministry has told food manufacturers to set their own rules for dealing with such problems. They have been ordered to report to the ministry only when a recall is necessary, but not what has to be included in the report or what the damage may be. The ministry prefers to let the companies decide when to publicize the facts and how. It does not require any reporting when the manufacturers believe the products will not reach consumers. And the ministry conducts no supervision over the testing by food makers in order to prevent contaminated products from reaching the stores, he said.

While the testing labs are required to report bacterial contamination, it only applies to “completed products” that are ready to be shipped, not to components or raw materials. Even worse, none of these rules are being enforced, said Regev-Kabir.