Israeli Restaurants May Be Forced to Put Food Warnings on Menus

The Health Ministry is planning to extend controversial red label reforms from packaged foods and drinks to big restaurants and cafe chains

People sitting at a cafe.
Aviad Herman

Come January, it could be golden arches on the outside and red labels on the inside – warning diners at McDonald’s and other restaurants that the food and drink they are enjoying contain more fat, sugar and/or sodium than experts consider healthful.

TheMarker has learned that the so-called red label reforms due to go into force in January, originally to be applied only to packaged food and beverages sold in supermarkets, will also be applied to big restaurants and café chains.

Yaakov Litzman, the deputy health minister and the effective No. 1 at the ministry, had made the decision and that it will go for approval after a new government is formed following the September 17 election.

“Litzman wants the requirements to be applied also to restaurants and fast-food chains. The requirements are now under discussion and the directives that will be approved won’t give them any breaks. The undertaking is being done according to international criteria,” said a ministry official who asked not to be identified.

The reforms were approved in 2016, giving manufacturers and importers — which bitterly opposed them — ample time to prepare. They specify that products containing more than 500 milligrams of sodium, 13.5 grams of sugar or 5 grams of saturated fats per 100 grams carry prominent red labels.

It’s not yet clear how restaurants will be required to meet the new directives. They may be ordered only to flag “red label” items on their menus, but officials are weighing a plan to require red stickers on food and drinks when they are served.

The rules will only be imposed on big chains, though the minimum number of branches for a chain to qualify has not yet been determined, and not to independent eateries.

Litzman clashed with the fast-food industry three years ago when he declared, at a conference of cardiologists, “McDonald’s is out – in our country no one needs to eat at McDonald’s.” By saying “No one needs to eat junk food,” he said the Health Ministry would pursue policies encouraging better eating habits, especially for children.

Omri Padan, who holds the McDonald’s franchise for Israel, was livid, especially since he had met with Litzman not long before to outline the chain’s plans to improve its menu. He hinted that Litzman, an ultra-Orthodox Jew representing United Torah Judaism, had singled out McDonald’s because most of its restaurants are open on Shabbat.

Nevertheless, when the red label reforms were unveiled, restaurants and cafes were exempted.

In March 2017, the Health Ministry issued a draft directive that would require restaurants to post the caloric values of their food and beverages. Still, these were far less draconian than the rules imposed on food makers because there were no warning requirements. Litzman’s latest plan would eliminate that distinction.

The planned changes acknowledge that Israelis increasingly eat out rather than at home. In the United States, households spend about equal amounts on eating at home and eating out.

Israel is far from that with 83% of food spending done at supermarkets and groceries and just 17% at restaurants and cafes. But the market research firm Czamanski & Ben Shahar expects that by 2024 eating out will grow to 25%.

Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and development show that in the decade to 2017, spending by Israelis at restaurants rose to 5.2% of total annual household expenses, from 4% — still below the 6.9% OECD average.

In any case, the Health Ministry initiative is expected to encounter powerful opposition from the restaurant industry, which has resisted similar plans by the government in the past.

Shai Berman, chairman of the Israel Restaurants Association, said it was wrong to limit the rules to big chains.

He said that because the branches were operated by franchisees, who in most cases prepare the food in the restaurant kitchens.

“They can’t really present accurate data. It will expose them to class actions,” Berman said. “Almost nowhere in the world are there labeling requirements for ingredients at chains.”