Schnitzel is still a mainstay of the Israeli diet but consumers may be surprised to hear that sales of the vegetarian variety are surpassing the traditional breaded chicken breast in the frozen food section of supermarkets by a three-to-two margin even though only 10 percent of the population is vegetarian. According to a report by the Gaon group's Credit Information Association Ltd. released Sunday, sales of prepared meat-substitute products grew 5% over the past 18 months, bringing annual volume to NIS 300 million - or 6,760 tons - per year. Sales of frozen chicken products grew only 4% to total NIS 200m. - or 6,000 tons per year. The organization attributed the findings to a worldwide trend of increased consumption of health food, including soy products. More than half of the population eats ready-made, meat-substitute products regularly with children between the ages of four and 14 being the primary consumers. Chicken schnitzel consumption is also led by children, followed by singles and couples aged 20 to 28. Factors contributing to the increased popularity of both vegetarian and chicken-based readymade products were the increase in employment among women; increased nutritional consciousness; a more time-pressured lifestyle; an increase in microwave oven ownership; and an increase in singlemember households, the Credit Information Association said. Animals' rights group Let the Animals Live praised the findings. "Soon they will be schnitzel on the plate, so they are treated as if they are just schnitzel when they are alive as well," said the organization's spokeswoman, Etti Altman, who deplored the "shocking and horrific" conditions in which chickens are transported, kept, and slaughtered. More than 60% of the market for vegetarian schnitzel and related products is held by Tivall, while rival Zoglowek Teva holds 36%. The remaining 4% is claimed by brands produced by the country's leading supermarket chains. Price doesn't appear to be a factor in the decision to go meatless, according to Eynat Usant-Ravid, marketing vice-president at Tivall, who noted that meat-free, ready-toeat foods are not necessarily cheaper than their meat counterparts. She also rejected the argument that the relative popularity of felafel and homemade vegetable ktzitzot among Israelis played a role, pointing instead to new products developed domestically by Tivall such as corn schnitzel. "Children like simple, uncomplicated foods, and corn products as a whole also speak to them," she said, adding that the children's foods market is fairly similar around the world. Tivall's exports to Europe account for more than half of the company's NIS 270m. in sales yearly, conquering a 70% market share in Germany, 50% in Sweden and Italy, 40% in the Netherlands, and 12% in the United Kingdom. The company -58%-owned by Osem-Nestle - is investing $30m. to build a factory in the Czech Republic. The biggest sellers of refrigerated chicken schnitzel are Mama-Of, with a 64% market share, and Of-Tov with 31% of sales. Mama-Of will have sold about NIS 130m. worth of schnitzel and related products in 2005.