The Bnei Brak branch of the Shufersal supermarket chain was fairly quiet on a Wednesday morning last week, as a few masked shoppers milled around the aisles with their carts.
But at the vegetable and fruit stands there was something distinctly new. Some of the produce was flagged with the words “Israeli agriculture” in Hebrew and pictures of a farm vehicle and a “tembel hat” of the sort worn by Zionist pioneers adorned with the Star of David — all meant, apparently, to trigger pride in the hearts of consumers by recalling fulfillment of the Zionist dream of tilling the soil.
“We have asked chains to flag products made in Israel,” said Nachum Izkovitch, the director general of the Agriculture Ministry, which initiated a pilot project with three supermarket chains — Shufersal Ltd, Victory Supermarket Chain Ltd. and Hetzi Hinam.
The move is meant to boost “transparency and openness,” he said. “Consumers have the right to know whether the produce they are buying comes from Turkey, the US or Argentina.”
The produce marked includes vegetables and fruit, fish and meat in a first step toward legislation that the ministry hopes to pass as soon as possible requiring all supermarkets to mark their produce’s country of origin, Izkovitch said.
In October, the ministry asked supermarket chains to join the product-marking pilot program, and in November it put out a consumer survey that showed that most Israelis are interested in knowing the source of their produce. Previous research has shown that Israelis prefer to buy “blue and white products,” i.e., products made in Israel, the ministry said, and are willing to pay a little extra for them.
At the Shufersal branch, 47-year old Dror, who was carefully selecting green apples and putting them into a bag, said that it was important for him to know the country of origin of the fresh produce he was buying.
“It depends on the price of course,” he said, after this reporter asked if he had noticed the markings on the produce (he hadn’t). “But it is important to show what is Israeli,” he said. “Because that is what I prefer.”
Similarly, a 76-year-old woman who politely declined to give her name said that it is important to buy Israeli produce because “a nation without farmers and agriculture is not a nation.”
She’d buy imported fruit anyway, she said, depending on the quality and price. “Look at these tomatoes from Israel,” she said, pointing to the hard, glossy-red round fruit on display, which sat alongside smaller tomatoes that were labeled “imported” and others that were labeled “imported from Turkey.”
“They are so much more beautiful. The others look like a rag.”
Incidentally, the price of all of the tomatoes was the same: NIS 3.90 a kilo ($1.19 for 2.2 pounds).
“You’re asking why I’d prefer to buy Israeli?” asked a 60-year-old woman with red highlights, a checkered shirt, jeans and red-brown boots, her eyebrows shooting up in disbelief at the question. “It is good for the economy,” she said. “I’d be prepared to pay more for Israeli products, up to 10% more.”
It is important to support the local agriculture industry to ensure the continued supply of food, the ministry’s Izkovitch said.
“We believe in Israeli agriculture,” he said. “We believe in the term food security, and food security means that in Israel most of the produce we eat comes from Israel.
“You can call it patriotic, but is it is also a practical consideration,” he argued, so that even during “climate or security or political emergencies, there will be food for the citizens of Israel.”
Israel airlifted in an emergency supply of millions of eggs in April amid the coronavirus pandemic as consumers emptied the shelves ahead of the Passover festival.
In addition, Izkovitch added, Israeli produce has higher quality standards than many similar products grown abroad.
A the end of last month the ministry put out a statement showing that the levels of pesticides on Israeli fresh produce were lower than those on goods grown to international and European standards.
The survey was performed on a variety of fruits and vegetables imported into Israel, including cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, pears and apples that originated from Turkey, Italy, Argentina, the US, Holland, China, Greece and Jordan, among others. Seventeen percent of the produce tested failed to meet Israeli standards, while just 5% of the same products failed to meet the European standards and just 1% failed to meet the international, Codex, standard for imports, the statement said.
Israel imports agricultural produce as part of trade agreements it has signed with nations; through them, it gains access to food — such as fresh meat — it wouldn’t have enough of otherwise.
“We don’t have grasslands like in Europe or Argentina, so when we import kosher beef, we are not against this [principle],” he said. “We are not ideologically against imports. When there is a shortage, we allow this.”
Even so, 95% of the produce consumed in Israel is grown locally.
Israeli citizens took to the streets in 2011 to protest the high cost of living, spurring ministries to take steps to increase the import of products in order to lower prices. Even so, imports have not necessarily translated into lower prices, said Izkovitch.
“There is no real free market in Israel,” he said. “We are a small country,” and the supermarket chains — which both import and buy local produce — “dictate everything.” They decide what to pay the farmers — generally a much lower price than what they charge the end consumer, he said.
“There is no wholesale market in Israel. It is all concentrated in four big buyers. Sixty percent of what is bought by Israeli consumers in fruit and vegetables is in the chains,” he said.
A free market needs to be developed, he said. “We are working on this.”
A spokeswoman for Shufersal said the pilot program is being implemented in a number of branches, and may be extended to others in the future.
Rami Levy, the CEO and founder of the Rami Levy Hashikma Marketing 2006, a low-cost supermarket chain, told The Times of Israel that his chain was not part of the pilot program to mark produce.
“I don’t think we need to show where produce comes from,” he said. “There is no demand from consumers and there is no legal requirement.”
He continued, “I always prefer Israeli produce over imports, but it depends on the price, quality and if there is a shortage or not, locally.”
Ninety seven percent of the agricultural produce sold in his stores is from Israel and just 3% is imported, he added.
“If there is enough local produce, there is no chance in heaven that I will import. It all depends on availability, price and quality of the product. We import when there are no goods.”
He added that his chain was entering into a partnership with tomato growers to ensure a continued supply to his supermarkets.
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