State Mulls Plan to Set Up FDA-style Food Watchdog

The ministry appears to be leaning in favor of the idea as long as the new authority comes under its auspices.

The Health Ministry is considering the establishment of a national authority to oversee the country's food industry, along the lines of the Food and Drug Administration in the United States.

Dr. Roni Gamzu, director general of the ministry, has ordered a study into the matter following years in which the ministry was opposed to such a move.

A meeting is to be held by the end of the month with Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman to finalize the ministry's position on the matter. The ministry appears to be leaning in favor of the idea as long as the new authority comes under its auspices.

Gamzu said that if the plan is adopted, the Health Ministry would submit a government-sponsored bill on the matter, in coordination with other government ministries involved in food supervision - agriculture, interior, finance, and industry, trade and labor.

Yaakov Litzman - Dror Artzi - Feb 13, 2011
Dror Artzi

Members of the Knesset's Health Committee, including committee chair MK Haim Katz (Likud ) and member MK Dr. Rachel Adatto (Kadima ), have recently been promoting a bill to establish a national food authority. The initiative came from Galit Avishai, head of Public Trust, a non-profit consumer group.

Avishai submitted to the committee a report on ongoing failures in food supervision in Israel. The report found, for example, that different procedures for supervising food in the various Health Ministry districts make it possible for a food production plant that had been refused a license in one district to obtain it in another. The report also cites problems in enforcing food standards in market stalls and in the practice of adding water to meat.

The division of responsibilities for food supervision among various different bodies, according to the report, led to a situation in which the Agriculture Ministry granted a permit to use arsenic to encourage chicken growth from 2004 to 2007, an issue now before the courts.

The proposal to set up a national food authority first came up in 2003 following the so-called Remedia affair, when a lack of vitamin B1 in the baby formula manufactured by that firm led to the deaths of two infants and the hospitalization of 23 others. In response to the affair, then health minister Dan Naveh tightened supervision and testing of baby foods, but not of other foods.

A committee established at the time found found that coordination was lacking on food supervision and recommended establishing an oversight authority. But Health Ministry experts opposed the idea, and so, in 2004, the cabinet established an oversight council to coordinate supervision of foods among the various ministries. Since then, two of its chairmen have resigned over lack of funding and authority.

Indeed, the council had legal authority and may submit recommendations only.

"In other countries, affairs involving food were the impetus for the establishment of national supervisory authorities, but in Israel, we found discussions going back to 1966, but even after the Remedia affair, no real change happened," Avishai said.

The Health Ministry said in response: "The ministry is studying the issue, and we will present our position in the coming weeks. In any case, a food authority will not be established without the Health Ministry's support and without making clear that it must be subservient to the health minister."