Israel Seeks Solutions as Ukraine War Chokes Off Egg, Wheat Imports

Just two years ago, a pandemic-induced egg shortage hit Israel just as the egg-rich Passover holiday approached.

In 2020, as the holiday approached, many across the country embarked on a real-life egg hunt, swapping rumors of fresh-supply stores or gray-market egg dealers, and waiting for the promised full planes to arrive. of fragile food.

In a revealing scene, El Al shared videos and images of his planes are filled to the brim with cardboard boxes, even using the passenger seats to hold down the fragile cargo.

Now the government is again struggling to avoid predictions of another shortage of eggs, as well as wheat and other grains, just as the holiday arrives, this time thanks to the war in Ukraine.

Israelis eat an average of 240 eggs a year, or 20 a month, slightly more than the world average. However, on Passover, with many other foods prohibited by religious and state decree, egg consumption increases by 10% to 22 eggs per person.

Between the Seder and a plethora of recipes that use eggs as a leavening agent, not to mention the favorite matzah brie with egg, it’s not uncommon for families to consume multiple dozens of the amazing edible protein over the holidays.

That is if they can find them.

Ukraine normally accounts for about 30 percent of the 100 million eggs imported into Israel annually. The Ministry of Agriculture, which is committed to avoiding shortages, is looking at additional imports from Poland and Bulgaria to make up any shortfall.

Even before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, it had been a tough year for egg importers, said Yehuda Ohana of Har Meron Eggs, an egg grading station in the north that supplies some 4 million eggs each month to supermarkets.

Ashdod port workers unload a container with millions of eggs imported from Spain at Ashdod port on April 5, 2020 (Courtesy of Flash 90)

“We already felt the strain with the bird flu in November,” Ohana said. An outbreak in northern Israel affected some 20 cooperatives with around a million chickens.

At that time, he began to work with Ukrainian egg traders.

“The prices were quite cheap, comparatively, and they are quite good eggs,” said Ohana, whose grading station is inside Kfar Hoshen, also known as Safsufa, a moshav in northern Israel.

Then Russia invaded and “imports stopped completely,” he said. “I’ve been trying to close the gap ever since, and there’s not much I can do.”

A tray of eggs from Meron Eggs, an Israeli eggplant experiencing egg shortages from Ukraine and Russia (Courtesy of Meron Eggs)

Other egg importers have turned to Spain and Italy, Ohana said, but prices are much higher. For now, it is supplying fewer eggs to its customers.

“Importers will start to feel those higher prices very soon,” he said.

While it may make sense to encourage new egg farmers in Israel, which the Agriculture Ministry is trying to do now to create more food security in Israel, it’s not a simple solution, Ohana said.

“If the government had planned this a little better, there would be enough eggs in Israel without having to import them,” he said, adding that the costs of raising eggs “are huge” given feed prices as well. such as electricity and water.

Ukrainian grain drain

It’s not just the eggs, either.

Israel’s flour mills, which have long imported grain from Russia and Ukraine, are also reeling from the abrupt end of imports from war-torn Ukraine.

“It’s over, it’s over,” said Shalom Hatuka of Shintraco, an Israeli grain importer that buys grain for human and animal consumption, some 600,000 tons a year. “We have finished receiving grain from Ukraine, it is a destroyed country, its ports and lands were deeply ruined. The port of Mariupol is no longer relevant, they destroyed the entire port infrastructure.”

Israeli flour mills, which is looking for other sources of grain in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one of the world’s leading grain producers (Courtesy of Israel Flour Mills)

Ukraine was the world’s sixth largest exporter of wheat in 2021 with a 10% market share and shipped 20 million tonnes of wheat and meslin (a mix of wheat and rye), according to the United Nations, and the country is also one of the main world exporters of barley and sunflower seeds.

Israel’s grain traders have been buying from Russia and Ukraine for the past 40 years, stocking up for February and March, when war seemed inevitable, Hatuka said.

But alternative sources weren’t obvious either, Hatuka said, as Hungary and Moldova were holding on to their own supplies, and US and Canadian grain prices are much higher.

For now, Romania is helping to make up some of the shortfall, but prices there are up 150%, to about $150 a tonne, on average.

“We will start to feel it in April,” Hatuka said.

Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman predicted the fallout for flour in late February, when Russia first invaded Ukraine, noting that wheat imports would inevitably take a hit, driving prices higher.

He predicted that any measures the government took to avert the crisis would fall short, comparing it to trying to stop a tsunami with an umbrella.

Israel imports 60% to 70% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, much of the rest from Hungary and Romania, and a small percentage from the US and Canada, said Kobi Polturak, CEO of Israeli Flour Mills, which provides about 15% Ground flour from Israel.

An Israeli flour truck; the flour mill receives grain imports from Eastern Europe and now has to deal with a lack of wheat from the Ukraine (Courtesy of Israel Flour Mills)

“So far we’ve been successful in bringing in some extra flour from Canada and Estonia, but it’s not that simple,” said Polturak, who works with middlemen to get the wheat from the flour mill. “Everyone is working a little harder to find wheat right now. It’s an effort.”

Polturak said he didn’t think there would be a shortage, but prices are going up. If a ton cost $380 before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, now it costs more like $550 or $600 per ton.

Other residual effects of the wheat shortage will be felt in the price of cooking oils, Shintraco’s Hatuka said, as Ukraine is one of the world’s largest producers of sunflower oil.

Rows of sunflower oil in the Agrarian Center of Ukraine; Ukraine is a world leader in the cultivation and processing of sunflower oil (Courtesy of the Agrarian Center)

Israeli flour mills import grains in advance to fully process them to enable the kosher certification process, Polturak said. But he is already buying grain at higher prices, mainly from Canada, where the quality is the same as Ukraine.

“Canada is as good as Russia or Ukraine, maybe even better,” he said. “It’s just a lot more expensive.”

He figured he has enough flour to last him through June, and that’s after months of struggling to get grain, starting with the pandemic that led to a spike in shipping and energy prices.

“What will be next, I don’t know,” he said. “I hope I can get the grain I need.”

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