Food packages to carry red labels for excess sugar, salt and saturated fats

Health Ministry hopes manufacturers will cut unhealthy ingredients over the next two years, before rules come into effect

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Illustrative. Enjoying a bowl of tortilla chips. (Hugh Stonelan via Stock/Getty Images)
Illustrative. Enjoying a bowl of tortilla chips. (Hugh Stonelan via Stock/Getty Images)

Following nearly two years of deliberation, the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee decided Monday to adopt a Chilean model that stamps prepackaged foods containing excess sugar, salt or saturated fats with a red label for each ingredient that is over the recommended limit.

During those two years, Israel’s food companies have lobbied the government, the health ministry and the committee hard. They backed voluntary, rather than compulsory food labeling, and wanted the labels to relate to healthy ingredients, rather than unhealthy ones. If food had to be labeled, they said, the labels should appear on the back of the packaging rather than the front. In all those battles, they lost.

One last-minute issue resolved Monday concerned the labeling of small snack packets whose front side measures up to 25 square centimeters. The committee decided to exclude such packets from red labels, but nevertheless to demand the disclosure of information about nutritional content and an indication of the numbers of teaspoons of sugar they contain.

In other decisions, natural fruit juices will not be marked with red labels, despite their high sugar content, nor will soft drinks that use sugar substitutes.

Milk substitutes for babies will be marked if their sugar levels exceeds what is recommended.

Health Ministry Director General, Moshe Bar Siman Tov, attends a discussion of the Knesset Labor, Welfare, and Health Committee on August 16, 2016 about recent finds of salmonella in the Israeli food industry. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov said the important thing was to enable the public to understand in a simple way whether a specific product contained harmful ingredients and to give them the information they need to compare between products.

He said food labeling was part of a broader educational program that, among other initiatives, would also see the issuing of guidelines on birthday party food. He did not give further details.

Bar Siman Tov said he hoped that the food industry would use the next two years to work on reducing sugar, salt and saturated fats so that consumers would not be faced with a sea of red labels when the new regulations came into effect.

The committee brought its discussions to a conclusion before the end of 2017 to ensure that the regulations would go into effect in early 2020.

The decision follows the passage of a law three years ago at the initiative of MK Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home) — before she became justice minister — to ensure that changes in labeling regulations for prepackaged foods would only go into force two years after the calendar year in which they were approved.

Had the committee waited until January 2018, the regulations would have gone into force only in 2021.

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