Nine people, Israelis and Palestinians, have been arrested on suspicion of smuggling unsafe meat into Israel from the Palestinian territories and selling it, with forged kashrut certifications, to Israeli restaurants.
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Officials have confiscated 30 tons of meat, thousands of dollars in cash and vehicles with secret compartments in an alleged scheme involving the cooperative efforts of Palestinian and Israeli smugglers. It was then provided to restaurants and shops, reportedly including a number of highly-regarded eating establishments.
“According to findings in our possession, the restaurants and stores received entrecote steak at 60 shekels ($16) a kilo instead of 120 shekels, and sirloin at 40 shekels a kilo instead of 100 shekels. When you buy meat at a 50% discount on the market price, it needs to set off alarm bells,” Roi Klinger, who heads the animal and plant oversight unit at the Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry, told TheMarker yesterday. It was his division, along with the Israel Police and the Tax Authority that uncovered the alleged meat smuggling ring.
The restaurants that reportedly received the meat were said to include a number of chef restaurants in the Tel Aviv area. The smugglers are suspected of purchasing meat from South America that was destined for the Palestinian Authority. It was allegedly shipped to Haifa port and from there transported to the West Bank Palestinian city of A-Ram before being smuggled back into Israel.
The law enforcement operation, Klinger said, was not yet over, noting that on Monday 700 kilos of meat smuggled in from the West Bank was found at the Hatikva market in south Tel Aviv. “[On Monday], a truck was caught at the Dragot checkpoint near the Dead Sea with 6.5 tons of smuggled meat. When the inspectors opened the truck, it was empty, but a thorough examination revealed a hidden compartment in which the smuggled meat was stashed,” he said. Inspectors step up enforcement efforts in advance of the Passover holiday, when meat consumption traditionally rises.
Restaurant industry sources say restaurants in Israel buy almost only frozen meat to maintain uniformity of portions over time. A senior food safety official said gourmet restaurants prefer meat that has not been koshered, that is not treated with salt. The meat smuggled via the West Bank was not koshered because it is then considered lower quality processed meat.
If the smuggled meat is not refrigerated properly, it would arrive at the restaurants partially defrosted and any fraud involved in its sale would be easier to detect, but a considerable portion of the meat was allegedly transported via the Black Angus meat firm in Jerusalem’s Atarot industrial zone and is said to have arrived at the restaurants frozen.
Beef that is imported from South America and shipped to Israel is on average 30% more expensive than the meat shipped from there to areas of the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority, because the meat destined for the Israeli market is kosher and the production of kosher meat costs more.
Shai Berman, CEO of the Israel Restaurant and Bars Association, said the restaurant owners could not have known about the smuggling scheme, adding that responsibility for keeping out smuggled meat is the Agriculture Ministry’s and not their own.
“It would be better if the Agriculture Ministry tightened oversight over meat coming in from the territories and not go after small business owners who bought meat with all of the certifications at prices that were not particularly low, and who don’t have the resources to check their quality as there is at well-to-do restaurants,” Berman said.
This incident is not an isolated one. Since the beginning of the year, attempts to smuggle 39,000 kilograms of meat were foiled and over the past three years, the Agriculture Ministry has uncovered 363 attempts to smuggle a total of nearly 730 tons of meat into Israel.