Israel’s Cottage Cheese Revolt: A flash in the tub?

The Media Line Staff

Jerusalem, Israel David Rosenberg – Is Israel’s cottage cheese revolution over?

Since the country’s consumers rose in rebellion over the price of their favorite dairy product nearly a month ago, supermarket chains and ultimately the manufacturers backed down and cut retail prices by about 25 percent as sales plummeted. By most accounts, it was the first ever successful consumer boycott in Israel.

But experts on economics, consumer culture and media speaking at a Hebrew University conference were divided on whether this opens a new chapter in Israeli economic history.

“This is a watershed in the economic life of Israel,” said Avi Simhon, a senior lecturer in agricultural economics and management. “The other cartels have learned that they can’t just squeeze the Israeli consumer, which is an important lesson that has a very, very large effect on the Israeli economy.”

But Paul Frosh, who as a senior lecturer in communications examined the white revolution as a media phenomenon, said he was doubtful it presaged a new area of consumer activism in Israel. Cottage cheese was the right product at the right moment, but activists, who are now targeting disposable diapers and other goods, will have trouble imitating the success.

“It’s perceived as a national symbol – something that all Israelis share,” Frosh said. “That meant it was easier to mobilize people around it. It’s also a staple – of all diary products it is one of the most popular – but it’s also a product you can live without.”

Manufacturers exacerbated the problem by gradually turning cottage cheese from a perceived food of the masses into a delicacy for the rich with premium priced products in tiny containers with added ingredients such as olives, honey and strawberries. “The rebranding of cottage cheese had something to do with it,” Frosh said.

The boycott of cottage cheese was launched on Facebook June 14 and was immediately picked up by the local media and turned into a national cause. Retailers trembled and within hours were offering discounts. Israel’s three big dairies – Tnuva, Strauss and Tara – held out but ultimately surrendered in the face of withering media criticism and threat by the government to introduce imports and other measures.

Frosh said that social media alone cannot generate sufficient attention unless it is picked up by the mass media, as the cottage cheese campaign quickly did. Ynet, Israel’s most widely viewed news portal, invited Itzik Elrov, the initiator, to write a guest column – and more importantly gave him the rare privilege of linking it to his Facebook page. The rest was consumer history.

But, Frosh said, a Facebook-only campaign, whether it is about cottage cheese or bringing down Egyptian President Husni Mubarak, is a “low energy” affair. It can enlist a lot of people and prove it by numbers but it requires little effort on the part of supporters.

“They don’t require a lot of commitment,” he said. “You don’t have to go into the street, launch manifestos and to go to a demonstration … Nevertheless when you aggregate it, you can create large political waves.”

Yakir Plessner, a professor emeritus of agricultural economics and management, said he had been surprised by the speed and force of the cottage cheese uprising. As much as its price had risen over the years since prices were decontrolled in 2006, all dairy products combined make up only 2.5 percent of the average Israeli family’s food basket. The price of cottage cheese would be “barely felt” by most consumers, he said.

Israeli home prices have been rising rapidly as well, and they make up almost a quarter of the typical family’s expenses. But no rebellion has emerged over home prices. Plessner said he could only conclude that the ado over cottage cheese was “psychological.” Nonetheless, he said, it shows a change in the Israeli mentality.

“I used to view the Israeli consumer as a dumb consumer,” said Plessner. “But I think that in recent years the Israeli consumer is beginning to get more sophisticated. The indication of that, unrelated to consumerism, is the ubiquity of new wineries. Israel has the highest number of wineries per capita in the world.”

Some commentators have suggested that the cottage cheese boycott may be heralding a pushback against economic policy of the last decade that has favored free markets and deregulation. Simhon said he doubted there was any change under way, citing a recent poll that showed Binyamin Netanyahu – who oversaw an intensive drive for privatization and deregulation as finance minister between 2003 and 2005 — was given the highest marks among Israel’s finance ministers.

The success of the cottage cheese boycott comes as Israel’s parliament was due to vote on a law banning boycotts against Israel or against settlements in the West Bank. The legislation, aimed at groups perceived as hostile to Israel, would exact financial damages from those initiating economic, cultural or academic boycotts.

Frosh said the law reflects a historic aversion among Jews and Israelis to boycotts, who have more often than not been victims. People protesting the anti-boycott law were holding up signs on Sunday night asking why a boycott against cottage cheese is legitimate but not one against settlements.

“Once the boycott is seen as both legitimate and successful in economic terms, can it move to political arena? I would be surprised if it does,” he said.

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