The emergence of the new scandal associated with former Health Minister Yaakov Litzman is good news not only for the war on corruption, but also for the food-labeling revolution. After a long period of reporting on what seemed to be a pressure campaign by the food industry on Israel’s decision makers, including Knesset members and Health Ministry officials, to thwart the food-labeling reform, the truth has come to light.
Tnuva Group CEO Eyal Malis allegedly instructed company employees to donate to a number of charities affiliated with the Ger Hasidic sect and to Moti Babchik, a close aide to Litzman, in a bid to delay or soften the program requiring red warning labels on foods high in fat, sugar and/or sodium.
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The labeling reform is important for public health. It helps reduce consumption of harmful foods via transparency about their potential harm and about changes in their contents. It is an important achievement in light of the troubling fact that Israel is getting fatter: 25 percent of adults and 14 percent of children are obese; 700,000 are considered “pre-diabetic” and 500,000 have Type 2 diabetes.
If we add to this the people in Israel who are considered overweight (body mass index of 25 or more), nearly half of the population is affected. The Health Ministry estimates the annual added cost of obesity at 6 billion shekels ($1.85 billion).
The labeling reform was a great threat to food manufacturers. They tried to fight it with every possible means, out of fear that when confronted with the embarrassing truth about their products, people would reduce their consumption.
There was wide coverage of the various tricks and pressure tactics the companies used on regulators, through lobbyists and messengers; suspicious donations to Ger charities and secret meetings between industry leaders and politicians; and through the long arm the companies thrust at government ministries and Knesset members. The launch of the police investigation will kick the probe into high gear and expose the money trail.
Despite the industry’s efforts, the food-labeling reform was approved with only minor changes. Even hard cheeses, over which Tnuva was willing to go to the mat, were labeled. Nevertheless, all the measures that were to accompany the reform, such as taxing harmful foods and prohibiting the advertising of such foods to children and teenagers, were canceled or rendered toothless.
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The incoming government must pass the reforms that were canceled, regulate lobbying and increase transparency. It must prove that it works for the public and does not serve the money and power of the food companies.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.