Cottage cheese becomes call for rebellion in Israel

“Cottage cheese, a basic good whose price has reached nearly eight shekels. Don’t buy it this month!”

As a revolutionary slogan, it’s unlikely to live in the annals of history alongside “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” or “Workers of the World Unite.” But in Israel it has inspired a grassroots rebellion that spread within days from a Facebook page to the Knesset, where Prime Minster Binyamin Netanyahu had a container placed in front of him in protest over prices.

The rising price of cottage cheese would seem an unlikely Bastille for popular protests, especially at a time when Israel’s economy is booming and unemployment is at a three-year low. But, in fact, it is serving as the soft and chunky edge of an equally important economic trend – rising income inequality and the squeeze on middle class consumers.

“Cottage cheese is just the tip of the iceberg. Nothing special happened this week to stir rebellion, but people said ‘We’re being screwed and we won’t put up with it,’” Pinchas Landau, an economic analyst who publishes The Landau Report newsletter, told The Media Line. “This isn’t going to bring down the government, but it is going to change government policy and tax policy.”

Cottage cheese is high on the typical Israeli’s shopping list, a major item in a country where dairy products form an unusually big part of the diet but not big enough that its price affects anyone’s standard of living. Instead, experts say, the foundations of Israel’s spectacular economic growth over the last two decades –its hi-tech industry and a policy of deregulating markets and paring back the welfare state – are the root cause of the white revolution.

Like other modern revolutions, Israel’s cottage cheese revolt started on a Facebook page, in this case one set up by Itzik Elrov, a resident of the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnai Brak, who has a picture of himself broiling hamburgers on a grill. As well, he should. Inspired by a planned price rise to eight shekels for a 250-gram container, he urged Israeli to boycott cottage cheese “until it spoils on the shelves.”

Elrov found a hot-button cause, inspiring other Facebook pages and winning more than 66,000 fans, or a little short of 1% of the entire population, for his own. Yediot Ahronot, the country’s biggest newspaper, ran a front page commentary “Cottage Cheese Storm” together with a cartoon of a woman angrily telling her cottage cheese-eating colleague during a coffee break “Shame on you, breaking the strike.”

In the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, cottage cheese became the subject of angry political debate. “The cottage cheese boycott is a protest against injustice, against the social gaps that have flourished under your watch,” opposition leader Tzipi Livni thundered at Netanyahu. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz promised he would consider allowing dairy product imports in an attempt to boost competition and help reduce prices.

On the store shelves, retailers quickly moved to out cottage cheese on sale in the form of buy-one-get-one-free and similar offers. The counter-revolution had the effect of boosting cottage cheese sales for now, according to the manager of a supermarket in Jerusalem’s Talpiot shopping area.

A lot is at stake. With annual sales of about 600 million shekels ($176 million), the curdled-milk product is a mainstay on supermarket shelves and a key product line for the some of Israel’s biggest companies, like Tnuva, Strauss and Tara, the latter a subsidiary of the local Cocoa Cola bottler.

Since price controls were removed on cottage cheese in July 2006, its price has risen 44%, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS). But while politicians blame the companies for exploiting the absence of supervision and accuse them of exploiting an oligopoly, the manufacturers say they have no choice but to raise prices because of higher milk and other costs.

But cottage cheese prices have fallen this year by a drop even as other food prices have climbed, an official at the CBS told The Media Line on condition of anonymity. She suggested that there were psychological factors behind the rebellion rather than hard economics.

Cottage cheese prices rose 1.5% in May, the last month that the government surveyed them, and they probably rose more in June when Jews celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, or Pentecost, when it is traditional to eat dairy products. In any event, people buy cottage cheese so often that they are more sensitive to any price change than, say, furniture or phone bills, the official said.

On the face of it, consumers should be ignoring price rises. As consumers were protesting cottage cheese prices, the government reported on Thursday that the gross domestic product expanded at a preliminary 4.8% annual rate in the first quarter, with consumer spending rising at more than double that. The unemployment rate was 6% in the first quarter, its lowest since 2008.

But the top-line figures belie much more complicated trends that have widened the gaps between the country’s wealthiest and poorest and made life more difficult for the great majority in the middle, said Ayal Kimhi, who teaches at The Hebrew University and is deputy director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel.

High technology has created an elite of well-paid educated workers, not to mention entrepreneurs and investors, while leaving many others without the skills or education behind. Israel’s economy has evolved so quickly that schools and other institutions haven’t adjusted.
“We have two countries—one of the highly educated and highly paid, who have profited from the new economy, and a large numbers of others, who work in services and for the government, who earn a lot less and have no future,” Kimhi told The Media Line. “The middle class is going backward. On one side, they don’t see big improvements in the salaries and on the other side they are spending more on housing, water, energy.”
A small consumer revolution broke out last January over gasoline prices, but as Landau observed, that was spurred by a sudden rise in prices due to higher world oil prices, new taxes and a weaker shekel. But, he asserted, the protests were part of the same phenomenon of middle class distress.
The top 10% of wage earners earn five times as much as the bottom 10%, the widest gap anywhere in the developed world, he said. The Gini coefficient, a measure used by economists to measure income inequality, shows the gaps are growing, with the ratio to 0.39 in 2009 from 0.35 in 1998.
While lawmakers were debating whether to restore price controls on cottage cheese, economists were saying the real answer is to restore some measure of income equality. Kimhi said the most important thing is to invest in education and training to better adapt Israel’s workforce to the new economy.

Landau said he expected the popular protests to eventually pressure politicians to roll back some of the free-market reforms of the last decade, in particular the growing reliance on indirect taxes, such as the value-added tax, which tend to hit the poorest the hardest.

A study by two economists at Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute released this week showed indirect taxes had grown under the Netanyahu government, which cut corporate and personal income taxes instead to spur growth. Income from indirect taxes now equal 86% of the direct-tax take, among the highest ratios in the developed world, they said.