The Health Ministry’s National Food Service is responsible for public health insofar as it relates to regard to sanitation at the level of the producers of food, whether fresh or processed. Every year there are hundreds of recalls of food products in Israel. Businesses that fail to comply with sanitary standards are fined and ordered to destroy affected food. Israelis assume that they can buy food safely, because the food industry is regulated and supervised, and that it can trust the Health Ministry’s supervisory system.
The recent salmonella outbreak didn’t only harm the Strauss Group’s profits, stock price and public image. The Health Ministry was aware April 19 of the presence of salmonella in the company’s Elite chocolate manufacturing plant in Nof Hagalil – five days before the public was informed and a recall was ordered of the affected products. This fact deals a serious blow to the public’s trust in the ministry.
Health Ministry officials argue that the National Food Service acted appropriately and in accordance with the law, explaining that the investigation took a few days. Some experts not affiliated with the ministry also think that since the bacteria was found in the manufacturing environment rather than in the products themselves, it wasn’t necessary to inform the public and recall the products immediately. Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said the company will conduct thorough, stringent checks. “We’ll do everything possible to preserve people’s health,” he added. “Anyone who doesn’t meet our standards won’t sell products in Israel.”
But it’s hard to say these statements reassured the people who buy Strauss’ products. This incident left them with the feeling that the Health Ministry preferred the welfare of a food corporation to our own, and that the economic damage to the company if the products ultimately turned out not to be affected was prioritized over a comprehensive order to remove products from the shelves immediately for the public’s sake.
In 2020, Eli Gordon retired as the director of the National Food Service, resigned. In a farewell letter, he wrote that “the food industry is rife with various interests, and we have to navigate among these crises. ... There is naturally ingratitude toward regulation; it has elements of supervision and enforcement – some would say ‘barriers’ – that are meant to protect the public’s health. Nevertheless, it steers the food ship to safe harbor.”
But this case of salmonella is a sign that the harbor is not completely safe. For the Health Ministry to make it safe, it must tighten its regulation and supervision of food products. And first and foremost, it must focus on the welfare of the public, not that of the companies.