Israel Health Ministry Claims Victory on Unhealthy Food Warning Labels

Red warning labels which warn consumers that a product contains sugar, sodium and/or saturated fats above a government-set maximum will now go on the front of products

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File photo: A nutrition facts label displays sodium content in a supermarket in New York, U.S.
File photo: A nutrition facts label displays sodium content in a supermarket in New York, U.S.Credit: Bloomberg

Employing two leading economists to make it case, Israeli Health Minister Yaakov Litzman has won over his colleagues at the economy and finance ministries to his plan to affix red warning labels on unhealthfy food to the front of packaging rather than on the back.

With that victory, the controversial labelling plan is now due to go to the Knesset in the next several days with the goal of having the labelling law in force by March next year – unless food makers and importers can pressure lawmakers to delay it.

The placement of the red warning labels, which are designed to notify consumers that a product contains sugar, sodium and/or saturated fats above a government-set maximum, had been the subject of big controversy.

But Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov said on Monday that the Health Ministry retained economists Dan Ariely and Eyal Winter – two leading experts on consumer behavior – who made the case for how important labeling is when shoppers make choices regarding healthy and less healthy food.

Spokesmen for the economy and finance ministries declined to comment.

Dan Ariely.Credit: Isaac Hernandez-Herrero

Health Ministry officials said the final draft of the regulations are now being reviewed by the Justice Ministry and will go to the Knesset Health Committee, chaired by MK Eli Alalouf (Kulanu) before going to the full Knesset.

If the labelling legislation is approved by the March deadline set by the ministry, it will only a little behind the deadline originally set by the government committee last year for enacting the rules. The process has been delayed by vehement opposition from Israel’s food importers and to a far lesser degree by food manufacturers, as well as from the economy, finance and justice ministries, which backed them.

The food industry contends that the labelling will add to their costs, which end up being passed on to consumers. Imports complain that unlike manufacturers they can’t adjust their ingredients to confirm with the new maximum, leaving them at a competitive disadvantage.

Eyal Winter.Credit: Emil Salman

In any case, the Health Ministry’s March deadline faces serious obstacles. Among them, officials have yet to finish setting proposed standards for green labels designed to alert shoppers to healthier food alternative nor have they written proposed rule limiting advertising of unhealthful foods to children and teenagers.

Most importantly, the food industry is expected to lobby intensely to get the date for the new rules on labelling to go into effect. Importers and manufactures say the Health Ministry had promised a year after the rules were put into law to prepare.

A statement by an importers group on Monday charged officials with distracting the industry’s attention from the more important issue of where the labels will appear by moving forward the enactment date and turning that into a controversy.

“Bar Siman Tov is in effect forcing importers to on something he was ready from the start to give them (more time to prepare) instead of on something he won’t compromise on at all (labeling on the back of products),” the statement said. “In the end, the rule won’t go into force in March and importers and makers will get more time to prepare.”

An executive in the food industry, who asked not to be identified, agreed. “In contrast to the importers we’re cooperating with the Health Ministry and don’t oppose labelling on the front of the package – but that has to be in exchange for giving us more time to get ready,” he said. “We can’t change packing overnight. It can’t happen.”

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