(photo credit: REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)
The cost of living in Israel is high. Dairy products, meat and other food products cost significantly more here, where salaries are relatively low, than they do in Europe, the US and other countries where average salaries are higher.
Part of the reason has to do with insufficient competition.
Just three firms – Tnuva, Strauss and Tara – control the dairy market. Just two – Tnuva and Dabach – control the meat market. A few large players control retail.
A team headed by Finance Ministry director-general Yael Andorn has been tasked with the goal of lowering food costs. One of the steps taken by Andorn and her team was to expose the local dairy and meat markets to international competition. To do this they scrapped customs and duties that had protected local industry from competition from abroad.
However, one of the major import barriers remaining in place is religious legislation.
In 1993, the High Court ruled that according to the Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation, a company called Meatrael should be allowed to import non-kosher meat. The court ruled that “limitations on the freedom of occupation may only be considered for a proper purpose and on the grounds of the common good.”
Shas, as part of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor-led coalition, passed an amendment to the basic law, and then in 1994 passed the Meat and Its Products Law that slapped a prohibition on the import of non-kosher frozen meat. Ever since, the High Court has refrained from interfering, despite being petitioned.
Not only is it against the law to import non-kosher frozen meat of any kind, the Chief Rabbinate, which has a monopoly over all kashrut supervision in Israel, adds additional barriers. For instance, any food product imported to Israel must receive a stamp of approval from the Chief Rabbinate before it can be called kosher. This includes products already deemed to be kosher by Diaspora rabbis.
An absurd situation is created in which products considered by Jews in Brooklyn and Paris and Istanbul to be perfectly kosher are not declared kosher by the Chief Rabbinate until a supervisor in its employ is dispatched to where the food is produced to verify – again – that all halachic directives are being observed.
Needless to say, this “double supervision” is expensive.
Importers of hard cheeses estimate that it jacks up prices by 35 percent.
The Treasury is attempting to convince the Chief Rabbinate to stop this practice. It will not be easy since the rabbis connected with the Chief Rabbinate have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, which provides jobs for dozens of kashrut supervisors at the expense of Israeli consumers.
Instead of attempting to work around the Chief Rabbinate, a more radical and equitable solution is in order: The Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over kashrut supervision must be dismantled. Products considered to be kosher by reputable Diaspora rabbis or by private kashrut supervisors in Israel need not be “re-koshered” by the Chief Rabbinate.
To accomplish this, the 1983 Kosher Fraud Law, which makes it a crime to advertise a food item or a restaurant as “kosher” unless the chief rabbinate says it is, must be annulled. A state-run, secular consumer protection agency should be made responsible for enforcing kashrut fraud laws, as is the case in the US.
A general consensus exists among consumers that “kosher” refers to undisputed Orthodox Jewish standards regarding food preparation. Any restaurateur or food producer who attempts to sell food as “kosher” without meeting consumer expectations would be in violation of the law and subject to fines.
Taking away the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly would open up both the local and international markets to free competition among numerous kashrut supervision firms and result in a drop in food prices.
Lawmakers should also consider scrapping the Meat and Its Products Law, which prevents the importing of non-kosher frozen meat. The decision as to which foods end up on one’s plate should be left to the individual, not to the rabbis.