Israel Scales Back Plan to Label Products With High Sugar Content

Health Ministry's foregone requirements were essential to protecting the public's health, say sources at Israeli physicians association

Super Yuda supermarket in Tel Aviv, September 2017.
Moti Milrod

Contrary to an earlier announcement, food manufacturers selling their wares in Israel will not be required to place a sticker on each product featuring a graphical representation of how much sugar it contains. A draft of the Health Ministry’s food labeling regulations obtained by TheMarker shows that affixing a picture of a teaspoon for each 4 grams of sugar per 100 grams of a product, a requirement that had been touted at a ministry food regulation panel, has been dropped.

The draft regulation only requires that the amount of sugar be indicated with numbers. The draft has not been released to the public, although it is expected to be submitted to the Knesset’s Labor, Welfare and Health Committee in the coming weeks. The regulations will also include a requirement that warning stickers be place on products with high quantities of salt and fat.

At meetings of the Health Ministry’s regulatory committee for the promotion of healthy nutrition, which provided the basis for the proposed regulations, health officials claimed that for the labeling to be effective, the quantity of sugar had to be presented through a graphic illustration rather than as a number. Officials who took part in the panel’s deliberations expressed outrage over the proposed shift in policy outlined in the draft regulation, claiming that they had been misled.

They said that when the Health Ministry panel’s recommendations were issued at the end of 2016, it was stated in writing that the quantities of sugar in each product should be represented in teaspoons, giving the impression that it would be graphic rather than a number.

Sources at the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians said that denoting the amount of sugar in a product with numbers and not pictures of teaspoons would neuter the committee recommendations and amount to a surrender to the interests of companies selling harmful food at the expense of public health. Graphic warnings, they said, are essential to convey an effective message to protect the public’s health.

Critics of the move also see the graphical representation as essential in light of the fact that earlier, stricter labeling standards were softened amid industry opposition. For example, it was ultimately decided that a red warning label would only be required on products containing 22.5 grams of sugar per 100 grams for most products and more than 6 grams per 100 milliliters for beverages. However, the standards will become more stringent a year and a half after the labeling regulations come into effect.

That would mean that initially, foods with 5.5 teaspoons of sugar per 100 grams (about a quarter of a pound) would not be required to affix a red warning label to their packaging. This would exempt Israeli pudding snacks such as Milky and Yolo from high-sugar warning.

In many instances, the pudding servings are over 100 grams, boosting the amount of sugar per helping even further.

“It’s a deathblow to our ability to create change among the public and to transform children’s health,” said the chairman of the Israeli National Council of Diabetes, Prof. Itamar Raz, who was a member of the Health Ministry’s healthy food regulation panel.

”There is no substitute for this," he said. “The decision by the panel to label the quantity of sugar in [graphic] teaspoons is of critical importance in the correct assessment of the quantity of sugar and to educate the public, particularly children, regarding proper consumption of sugar. It’s clear to me that the change is the result of pressure from the food companies. There is no other explanation.”

However, the Health Ministry’s director general, Moshe Bar Siman Tov, who has been leading the effort to combat harmful food, said the change in the draft labeling regulations was made for technical reasons and not in response to food industry demands.

“When we actually got to applying and drafting the regulations, technical limitations became apparent, such as the ability to enlarge the [nutritional] table on the back of the product – which a minority of consumers even read now – from two to three columns and due to space limitations, it was decided on labeling with a number. There was no compromise here with anyone,” he said, adding: “The issue never came up in deliberations with industry. The important step is the red [warning] label that will be on the front of the package, as planned.”

Yifat Shemer, a representative of the public on the Health Ministry’s panel on food regulation, said that the issue of a graphical representation of teaspoons for sugar content was raised a number of times in the panel sessions and there was agreement that the teaspoons be prominent and clear. She also complained that as a member of the panel, she had not been provided with a final version of the regulations. “It’s disappointing and frustrating to discover that again somehow the good of the industry is taking precedence over the good of the public.”

The regulations were initially due to take effect on January 1 of next year, but since the Health Ministry has not yet submitted the regulations to the Knesset, ministry sources expect that they will take effect in March at the earliest.