From my rooftop balcony in Kfar Tavor, Galilee, I see the smoke stacks of Tnuva Industries. It’s the largest dairy plant in the Middle East. Every day, hundreds of trucks bring in the raw milk for processing.
For most Israelis, lunch is the heavy meal of the day. It includes chicken or beef, and rarely fish although the Mediterranean is a stone throw away. Dinner is the “light” meal of the day: typically scrambled eggs, dices tomatoes and cucumbers, olives, and lots and lots of dairy products: milk, cottage cheese, cream cheese, yogurt.
One of the reasons for leaving Los Angeles was the belief that the cost of living is lower in Israel, that food prices are cheaper.
Take a quart of milk, for example. In Israel it costs $1.85 a quart or $7.50 per gallon. And since you’re making half, it’s as if it cost $15 in the U.S.
If this were to happen in the U.S., there would be blood, I mean, milk in the streets.
But here, people complain and groan and continue to drink. Why? Tnuva Industries is a monopoly, controlling 85% of the dairy market. Which is why it can charge the U.S. equivalent of $3.50 for a small container of cottage cheese, and $9.50 for 10 ounces of “Swiss” cheese.
I love beer. But at $12.85 for a six-pack of Goldstar (think double, remember? $25.70), I measure my consumption of the lovely beverage.
The price of bread is outrageous. A sliced loaf will cost you $5.00 (think $10).
Apples? $2.10 per pound (think $4.20/pound).
A bag of frozen peas? $3.80/pound (think $7.60). Why so much? Are there little people with little fingers counting those little green pease before they put them in the little bag? Or is the cost of ice?
Want lunch with chicken breast? $3.75/pound (think $7.50)
Even fruits and vegetables, the main staple of the Israeli diet, is not within the reach of many. What’s irritating is that top-quality produce is flown daily to grocery stores in Berlin, London, Amsterdam, yet here, in Israel, second-grade produce costs more.
That’s a lot of fertilizer on your face.
Elite-Strauss is a giant food cartel. They monopolize everything on the supermarket shelf, from chocolate to coffee, to snacks, to cheeses, to ice cream. Osem Industries, another food powerhouse, control pastas, rice, sugar, flour. Telma controls cereals, soups, canned goods.
Unlike countries in Europe, Israel imports less food. There’s no competition. And if there are imports to be had, guess who the European exporters partner with? You got it: Osem, Elite and Tnuva. They have s small army of lawyers who are able to decipher the red tape, the cost, the paperwork, the crazy documentation needed to import food into Israel.
What’s absurd is that Israeli-grown food costs double here than it does in England. Raisins cost double in Tel Aviv than in London. Same for dried apples. Walnuts costs more. And the list goes on.
A recent survey found Israeli food to be 30% more expensive than European. Germans and French earn more, so do the math.
There are multiple reasons for the high prices but none are convincing. The giant food companies say that the Israeli market is too small, fewer consumers, therefore, it has more operating costs, hence the higher price. Belgium and Portugal have similar population size as Israel’s and their prices are much lower.
Kosher laws add to cost, food producers explain. It’s not a reason, but an excuse to raise prices, to pin it on the “fall guy.”
To keep their market share, these big companies control the supermarkets. They dictate the prices, give incentives for displaying their products on the shelves, and penalize them for introducing a competitor.
Supermarkets are tacit allies. They can’t afford not to cooperate. Products will be pulled off. A small importer wanted to introduce the famous Cadbury chocolate. Suggested retail price? Half. Elite squashed them.
We buy imported beer when they’re on sale. We stock up. We gave up milk for health reasons; we use just a little to splash our morning coffee. Instead, we grind almonds, throw in soft dates, and hit “blend.” The result? A refreshing light almond milk drink.
We hardly eat cheeses.
Bread? My wife bakes, instead. Or we buy great tasting whole-wheat pita bread from the Arab villages.
In 2011, thousands of Israelis flocked to the streets in protest. A grassroots movement came into being. Tents were pitched on fashionable Rothchild Blvd in Tel-Aviv. Television crews came and went. Debates were held on TV and radio. It was called the “Cottage Cheese Protest.”
The Big Companies said they’re listening to their consumers. They promised change. In time, prices came down. Very little.
It’s back to business as usual.
I’m going to take a break now. Pour myself a frothy beer. Watch the golden color. Sip. Then dip our homemade bread in olive oil, and watch the world turn.
The Big Guys get all the breaks.
Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.
He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com
or at BN.com