Italian producers combat new Israeli food marking rules

Child obesity photo: Shutterstock

Italian food consultant: Unhealthy product marking reduced Italian food exports to Chile by 8%.

Federazione Italiana dell'Industria Alimentare (the Italian Food Industry Federation) has sent its consultant, Raffaele de Lutio, to Israel to help combat the Israel Ministry of Health's food product marking reform, scheduled to take effect in January 2018. The Italian Food Industry Federation represents 16,000 industrialists in the Italian food industry, 95% of the total in Italy. The official purpose of de Lutio's visit is to strengthen ties and cooperation on nutrition and technology with Israel. He will attend a conference at Tel Aviv University on science and innovation in the sector. His unofficial goal is actually to analyze, prepare for, and influence the Ministry of Health's food product marking reform.

In early April, the Ministry of Health Regulatory Committee for Promotion of Healthy Nutrition in Israel published an initial draft for public comment of its recommendations for marking food products in order to combat obesity in Israel. According to Ministry of Health figures, 60% of Israelis are overweight, and 8% are diabetic. Under the recommendations, food manufacturers will have to put a negative mark on food products containing large amounts of sugar, salt, or fat. The negative mark will be on a red sticker attached to the product.

Implementation of the recommendations will be in three stages, each of which will be stricter in the level of components requiring negative marking. In the first stage, products containing more than 800 milligrams of sodium, 22.5 grams of sugar, or 6 grams of fat per 100 grams will require negative marking. This stage was scheduled to go into effect in January 2018, but when it will actually take place is unclear, due to disagreements between authorities. The second stage was scheduled for July 2019, and the third stage for December 2020.

In response to an inquiry from "Globes" a month ago about the date of the reform, the Ministry of Health responded, "We are continuing according to the timetable we published, without any delay, and welcome the Knesset keeping abreast of what is happening." In response to a further inquiry this week, the Ministry of Health gave a far more conciliatory answer: "The final date on which the reform begins will be determined after the stage of comments from the public."

No health justification

Italy exports a substantial quantity of food products to Israel, including pasta, wine, chocolate, tomato products, olive oil, butter, and cheese. According to Italian Food Industry Federation figures, exports to Israel totaled $2.7 billion in 2016, compared with $2.5 billion in 2015. Israeli food exports to Italy in 2016 were estimated at $950 million, compared with $850 million in 2015.

"Chilean imports of food products from Italy dropped 8% following the reform there," de Lutio says. "If it is shown that people don't buy because of the sticker, even though there is no proven scientific medical justification for this reform, it will be a violation of Israel's agreement with the European Union. We hope to receive another opportunity to talk with the authority in the Israeli Ministry of Health.

"Even if the reform in its current format goes into effect, we'll need at least two years to adjust our packaging to the new rules; otherwise, it will be very difficult to comply with it. What we produce for Israel will be only for Israel. It's not a big market, and any change in it is consequential and incurs additional costs. Furthermore, contracts in Italy for the work year are signed in early September, two months from now, and we have to know what we're facing in order to make the change.

"The Israeli market is significant for the food industry in Italy, and is considered a medium-sized market - equivalent in size to exports to European countries like Germany and Belgium, and amounting to 2% of the Italian export market. It's the only market outside Europe with which we have a significant connection," says de Lutio.

In other words, we may not be such a small market as various parties trying to thwart the reform are alleging when they claim that it will bring imports to a halt. It appears that the importers are willing to adapt themselves to the new regulations, and that they will not disappear so quickly and deprive the market of competition.

De Lutio met with several people, including important food industry figures, and with Ministry of Health director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov.

"The main difficulties posed by the reform to importers of Italian food products is that it is not based on real health definitions. There is no proof of a direct connection between consumption of a certain product and a specific disease. Butter, sugar, or olive oil aren't hazardous in themselves; they are hazardous when used in excess - when consumption is uncontrolled," de Lution declares. "It's like they used to say about children watching television too much; does that mean that television is hazardous? Should watching television be banned? No, as long as the quantity is controlled and there is education about correct viewing. The same is true about food."

De Lutio says that one of the issues of greatest concern to the Italian food industry is the abandonment of natural products and the switch to products based on chemicals. Commenting on the reform in Chile a year ago used as a model by the Ministry of Health, de Lutio says, "After the marking sticker law was passed, many manufacturers replaced products with substitutes that were questionable, to say the least, in order to avoid having to use the stickers. For example, they switched from using vanilla sugar, a natural product, to a chemical ingredient with a similar taste.

"Is Fanta Zero better than orange juice? It's inconceivable," de Lutio exclaims angrily. According to him, from an economic standpoint, using a chemical-based artificial sweetener will enable the manufacturers to produce at a lower price, and as is now happening in Chile, will constitute a cheap and easy solution for the food companies, but will be less healthy for the consumers.

Size also counts

De Lutio says that one of the questions raised in his meeting with the Ministry of Health was the size of the products requiring marking. There is a minimum size for product marking in Chile: no product smaller than 13 centimeters requires marking, so that the entire front of the product does not have to be covered. He says that this decision made manufacturers prefer the production of smaller products.

Asked about the price of the imported products, he answered, "The reform will definitely increase the price. If the regulation in this format is approved, just making the new packages will make the price go up. That was also the result in Chile - a 15% rise in the average price. It's not just putting on stickers so that they don't cover the product logo; the entire package has to be redesigned."

The Ministry of Health said in response, "We believe that the reform complies with all the trade agreements that Israel has signed. We are in touch with many countries and with the World Health Organization about all the initiatives for marking on the front of the package. In Israel, it was decided that artificial sweeteners would not receive a positive marking."

Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - www.globes-online.com - on July 11, 2017

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2017

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Child obesity photo: Shutterstock
Child obesity photo: Shutterstock
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