Health Ministry Promotes Liberalizing Food Import Rules to Lower Prices

Reform would open up import of most foods - if they meet quality standards.

A proposed change in the regulations governing food imports could bring a host of new foods to Israeli supermarket shelves and in the process drive down food prices. The reform plan is to be presented to the cabinet today by the Health Ministry and is slated to be voted on next Sunday.

The approval of the plan is expected to be rapid. The cabinet is expected to approve the plan on Sunday as part of a larger program to encourage competition in the retail food sector to bring down prices. The government has been under particular pressure to address the high cost of food here since the eruption of cost-of-living protests during the summer of last year, protests that were sparked in part by the high price of cottage cheese. Food prices here have been rising steadily in recent years.

If passed, the reform should take about a year to implement, and afterward result in the sale of a large number of products not previously available in Israel. The plan will affect such items as crackers and biscuits, snack bars, pasta and some types of chocolate as well as rice and legumes. It would not include items deemed "sensitive," for which individual approval will still be required of importers. This includes meat, baby food, cheese and other items sensitive to changes in temperature.

When it comes to food produced in Israel, the Health Ministry currently grants blanket approval to food manufacturers, but up to now the ministry has required individual approval of each imported food item, including the submission of forms for each product. The reform plan would ease the requirements and shift some of the burden in the approval process from Health Ministry officials to the importers themselves. The plan calls for food products to be imported freely if they are from facilities certified by their country for good manufacturing practices - GMP, as the standard is widely known.

"The trend is to base approvals provided to food importers on approval of the production site and not based on files for each item," said the Health Ministry's associate director-general, Boaz Lev. "A database will be established registering food product sites abroad that have quality assurance certification recognized by the various countries, and it will be possible to import regular food from those plants with substantially less bureaucracy."

At the same time, the ministry has decided to increase government oversight of retail food stores and open-air markets to ensure that imported food being offered to the consumer actually does have quality assurance certification. The cabinet will be asked to approve funding for the hiring of dozens of new Health Ministry inspectors required by the new approach. The plan also calls for a computerized database to monitor potential risks among food imports.

Lev sought to dispel concern that the level of oversight over imported foods would decline as a result of the new plan. "In many Western countries food imports are handled based on a similar model, and this includes the United States," he said. "We will continue to take inspection samples, less at their point of entry into the country and more in the shops and the supermarkets to assure food quality and safety." The decision to exclude food items that are considered sensitive comes against the backdrop of the Remedia baby formula scandal, which broke in 2003. In that case, non-dairy formula manufactured by a German plant was erroneously produced without the required Vitamin B1, leading to the deaths in Israel of two babies and the hospitalization of 23 others. In response, the health minister at the time, Danny Naveh, stiffened inspection requirements on imported baby food and required that each batch of the product be examined, as it was deemed a sensitive product. In recent years, additional items were added to the list of sensitive products. But the Health Ministry's Lev said under the new approach, the list will be updated and will be managed more flexibly based on developments in the field. "If it turned out that there are reports somewhere around the world of an incident involving dry food, for example, flour, then it would temporarily be classified as sensitive," he explained. "The division between sensitive and regular food would be dynamic." The ministry also agreed to make it easier for new food importing companies to operate in Israel. Lev acknowledged that under the new food importing approach, food importers will also have more responsibility. "If we discover that [an importer] violates the trust placed in it, the ministry has the capability of acting against it." At this stage the reform will apply to all food items not considered sensitive and no preference will be given to healthier foods. At the same time, however, steps are being considered by the ministry to encourage consumption of healthier items, including a proposal to tax unhealthy foods.