Understanding the numbers behind your Pessah bill

Basic food prices have gone up drastically this year.

Pessah 88 (photo credit: )
Pessah 88
(photo credit: )
The week before Pessah is one of the busiest shopping weeks of the year, as many consumers will have noticed while waiting on long lines at packed supermarkets. But what grabbed many shoppers' attention after they got through those lines was the bill they received - often substantially higher than last year's sum. Part of the reason behind the larger supermarket bills is a change in spending habits, with more shoppers opting for a variety of premium or boutique products, as well as more expensive healthier alternatives. Statistics show that Israeli shoppers are simply buying more of almost every type of holiday product, from matzas to wine to ice cream, as a result of the improved economic situation in recent years. But the major reason so many are seeing high triple- and even quadruple-digit shopping bills is the global rise in basic food prices. Over the past year, the price of basic food such as wheat, soy and rice increased by 50-90 percent, a rise which is hardest felt by the world's poor, for whom food costs account for much of the expense of living. The newest trend in Pessah shopping is "health matzas," a general name for an NIS 15 million sales market, which grew 50% this year and includes whole wheat, light flour, organic and spelt matzas. Other trendy ways to make the mitzvah go down include egg matzas, chocolate-covered matzas and gift-wrapped matzas. The prices for specialty matzas at Shufersal ranged from NIS 21 to NIS 24 for 400 grams, compared to a standard matza carton of one kilogram for NIS 18. The matza market as a whole has expanded by 10% this year, according to a report by the Israel Manufacturers' Association (IMA), with sales estimated at NIS 120 m., out of which NIS 45 m. is shipped to dozens of Jewish communities around the world. As with the majority of the export industry, the IMA added, profitability of the matza industry has also been hit by the fall of the dollar against a strong shekel. Along with the matzas, Jews will imbibe some 10-12 million bottles of wine, of which 90% are home grown vintages. According to figures by the IMA, wine sales increased this year by some 10-15%, to NIS 250 m. Consumers have also been subject to what are seen as unfair price inflation in the pre-Pessah season. This reporter's local market manager bitterly criticized an Israeli winemaker, which he said had raised the price on its staple grape juice by NIS 2 only a week before the holiday. All told, the sum of holiday purchases for the Pessah period in Israel is estimated at NIS 1.5 billion by the IMA, up 10% from last year. By way of comparison, the Israeli food industry listed NIS 50 b. in sales for the entire year 2007. Big winners, other than Pessah requirements of matza and wine, are the chocolate manufacturers, whose sales improved by 9-13%, and ice cream sales, which increased by 15%, according to the IMA report. But for many shoppers it may be difficult to notice differences in food prices compared to a year ago; consumers are often more concerned with finding the best price on this year's shopping rather than comparing their bill to the historical records. Akiva and Aliza, shopping for last minute items at the Wolfson branch of Mister Zol (in Jerusalem's Rechavia neighborhood) with their two toddlers in tow, had done most of their shopping at a discount supermarket, located farther away. They found prices much higher at Mister Zol, but did not notice any price changes compared to last Pessah. A recent survey by Geocartographia points to a basic misunderstanding of food economics among the Israeli public. The survey, commissioned by the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering, found that nearly a quarter of respondents guessed that food prices were increasing due to changes in government regulation and taxation. Dr. Dorit Tavor, of the college's Green Processes Center, said the intention of the survey was to highlight the role of the environment in issues that affect daily lives. Such factors as land rendered unusable by pollution or taken up by suburban sprawl are hitting consumers in their pockets, she said. A major issue affecting food prices over the past year is the high price of gasoline, which, together with environmental concerns, has led to widespread use of foodstuffs for biofuel rather than for human consumption. "In considering environmental policies," Tavor said, "it is important to take into account social and economic aspects, as well." The other bad news is that as consumers are buying more and paying more for it, the value of traditional holiday vouchers has shrunk. The vouchers, worth an average NIS 510, are distributed in 83% of Israeli workplaces. Employers are spending 4% less on the vouchers than last year, according to a survey by the IMA. All told, the value of the various gifts distributed by employers is estimated at some NIS 1.9b.