Israel’s Arab Spring – storm in a cottage cheese tub

Online protest group advocates shunning Israeli-made foods whose prices are dramatically higher than those in US; Finance Ministry meets.

By NADAV SHEMER
June 15, 2011 12:34
4 minute read.
A bowl of cottage cheese

Cottage cheese 311. (photo credit: Fastily)

Harnessing the potential power of social media, tens of thousands of disgruntled Israeli consumers have taken to Facebook to protest the rising price of one of the staples of the local diet – cottage cheese.

The campaign, which is being run by a group called “Boycott Food Products,” calls on consumers to refrain from purchasing cottage cheese produced by Israeli manufacturers Tnuva, Strauss and Tara during the entire month of July.

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The page explains, “It just can’t be that the price of a product manufactured in Israel by an Israeli company could rise to x [amount of shekels], when we see the exact same products [manufactured by the same Israeli companies] being sold in Europe and the United States at a cost of around 50 percent less... There is no reason to screw us out of all proportions.”

The average container of cottage cheese today costs NIS 8.

Despite consumer complaints, the government is planning to discuss the removal of certain pricing caps, which could have the effect of driving costs further upwards, Army Radio reported Wednesday.

Itzik Elrov, who began the Facebook campaign, told Globes that cottage cheese was chosen for the protest because “it is a symbol,” but said that consumer protests would spread to other food products later on.

“[Boycotting] dairy products is a strong blow, because their expiration dates are short, and this will put more pressure on the companies.

They can absorb the cost if we don’t buy olives for two months, but they can’t allow themselves [that same luxury] with dairy products.”

More than 50,000 people had backed the campaign by late Wednesday night, and that number appeared to be growing rapidly.

In fact, the campaign has already reached the halls of power, with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyhau receiving a tub of cottage cheese from opposition MK Ronit Tirosh (Kadima) at a special Knesset session yesterday.

The opposition had organized the session to bring attention to what they called “the failure of the Netanyahu government in political, economic and social sectors.”

Of course, how much of an effect the online campaign has in practice remains to be seen come July, although Israeli Consumer Council CEO Ehud Peleg said that the growing groundswell of consumer anger was already working, and could be seen by the fact that businesses and chain stores are offering more discounts and deals than usual.

“All the years it has been said a lot that the consumer does not need to sit idly while businesses try to take advantage of them, or ask ofthem to pay excessive costs for their products,” Peleg told The Jerusalem Post.

“Consumers need to use the weapon they have, which is free will - whether to buy the product or not. In this way they can force the levers of demand and supply to their advantage, and to broadcast to business owners, ‘bring down prices or find yourselves new buyers.’ “If they keep cottage cheese on the shelves, they will have to go to the bank with that cottage cheese and not with the money of consumers.”

Peleg added: “This is not just the consumer’s fight. This is a fight over the norms in the State of Israel... and over the values of fairness and consideration that we need in a Jewish and democratic state.”

Cottage cheese manufacturers had still not reacted publicly to the campaign by press time.


May’s consumer price index was published Wednesday evening, showing a 0.5 percent rise for the month and an annualized inflation rate of 4.1 percent. Meanwhile, the price of a regular container of Tnuva cottage cheese has risen by around 39 percent in the past three years, while the price of milk has only risen by 3.8 percent in the same period, The Marker revealed.

MK Shai Hermesh (Kadima), who chairs the Knesset’s Agricultural Lobby, called on consumers to focus their fight against what he called “the real guilty parties in this whole story” – the major supermarket chains.

Cottage cheese products are “just one example of the unacceptable profit margins taken by the big chain stores, who use their great power to force excessive prices on the public, [including] among others, those products that are so basic and essential to the poorer classes.”

MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor), who sits on the Knesset Finance Committee, said the blame for the high price lies mainly with the fuel tax, which added to transport costs and “which most members of Knesset voted for.

“There is no escape from a significant reduction in indirect taxes such as that on fuel,” she said. “The call for a price reduction, disconnected from the reasons for the [price] rise, will at the end of the day harm farmers, laborers and the weaker segments of the food industry.”

Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.


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