This summer, I found myself touring of some of Israel’s food, beverage and nutritional ingredient and supplement industries, courtesy of the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute, and this is the first of my three part report on this Western-oriented island in the middle of the Levant. I’ll open the door to how a “little nation that could” manages to set and keep the bar high when it comes to research, development and production of foods, beverages, ingredients and nutraceutical supplements. Here I should tender full disclosure: I’ve been a resident of Israel twice, and traveled there multiple times in the past few decades. Still, Israel’s accomplishments stand on their own: This formidable tech leader has left no corner of industry untouched by improvement and innovation, and having a front row seat was a big learning experience for me.
Israel (population 7.5 million) is tiny—if the Middle East was the size of a football field, Israel would be the size of a pack of matches. And, since about 60% of Israel is desert, picture just eight matches on that field and now you have the idea. Israel’s devotion to pushing beyond the boundaries of science and technology is evident at every turn. It’s been the world leader in medical, computer and other invention for two decades—flash drives, the modern cell phone, pill cameras, 3D copiers, radiation-free mammograms, VOIP, Skype…the list goes on. And the fields of foods, beverages, ingredients and nutraceuticals are no exception to the restless ingenuity on tap in this ancient—yet ultra-modern—country.
Israel was fortunate enough to have its ducks in a row a few years ago when China, after becoming a food and supplement ingredient leader, fatally dropped the food-safety ball. (Heads rolled…literally.) Yet Israeli facilities in China operate according to already high Israeli standards, including strict kosher supervision. This “answering to a higher authority” (to borrow Hebrew National’s slogan) is a boon to purity, so ingredients such as soy proteins, fiber, citric acid, sweeteners, starches etc. from Israeli companies and facilities sited at home and in the Far East could jump into the gaps when other China-based sources were being shunned or shut down.
One of the most impressive aspects of the food-related production facilities in Israel is that they benefit from the same exacting standards and practices of the U.S. and E.U. Every facility we saw there was spotless; ingredient makers adhere to the strictest QC standards at home as abroad. But where the rubber really meets the sand is food safety: Since Israel is legally a Jewish country, most facilities adhere to the laws of Kashrut—kosher.
Keeping things kosher means more than just steering clear of pork and shellfish (and other unkosher animals and fish, such as rabbit or ostrich, catfish or mahi-mahi). The kosher laws include strict separation of meat and poultry from dairy products and ingredients. Bugs also are prohibited, which means not only do spices, herbs and vegetables (especially leafy ones) have to be washed and inspected minutely, but ingredients derived from unkosher sources such as shellfish or bugs—think chitosan from shrimp, calcium ingredients from oyster shells and carmine food coloring from beetles—must be stringently avoided. Kosher laws also forbid use of certain equipment and containers that are cracked and broken, as well as vetting conduits and piping that connect or run through equipment. Because of this, contamination control is exercised at literally a molecular level.
That’s the microscopic view. In the big picture, as a country at the crossroads of food cultures for some 6,000 years, and with immigrants from more than 100 countries, Israelis know food. For food industry visitors, when it comes time after a day’s touring to sit down and eat something plated, the choices and quality are expansive and enriching. The culinary melting pot that is Israel is overarched by the melding of Levantine, European and American-style cuisines. The fusion worked well in the places visited. Send me an e-mail and I’ll provide you with a list of all my favorite restaurants in Israel.
But Old School managed to top the rest: Venturing to the Arab city of Umm Al-Fahm, a late-lunch feast of classic foods from the region was nothing short of mind-blowing. With thanks to our host, David Hart, CEO of Galilee Nutritionals, we ate like pashas. Twenty one different salads, hummus and pickle plates were arrayed before us as starters, and pitchers of deep purple pomegranate juice and tart lemonade were continually refilled as a prelude to roasted stuffed lamb neck, kibbe, lamb stew and rounds of hot pita bread brought freshly-baked from brick ovens. Gracious hospitality allowed us to linger for hours and discuss business while shamelessly stuffing our faces. Strong, sweet Turkish coffee and sticky, honeyed baklava made in-house provided a most authentic finale.
In Old Jaffa, where neon—and webs of power lines everywhere to supply it—compete with the ancient buildings, minarets, clock towers and mazelike alleys, we wended our way to an old favorite: Dr. Shakshuka. The doctor was in and in excellent form, as inexpensive abundant Libyan Jewish cuisine was brought gruffly but kindly to the table by ox-armed waiters with cigarettes dangling from stubbled faces, looking like the original sailors who accompanied Jonah from the same dockside 4,000 years before. Shakshuka is a tomato and egg dish that goes best with piles of pita and cooling hummus, plus icy Goldstar beer. This was a place we visited more than once and one I make sure to hit every time I am in country.
In the next Viewpoint in this series, I’ll introduce some of the companies we visited and who very kindly hosted us. Also, be sure to look on our Website for quick, 1- to 2-minute video interviews conducted with some of our hosts.
PS: While this has nothing to do with food or nutraceuticals, it’s just way too cool to not pass along, especially as an example of ingenuity taken to a whole new level—its Israeli inventor Izhar Gafni’s soon-to-market bicycle made entirely from $9 worth of recycled cardboard: www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4266325,00.html