Israel is a Mediterranean country with great dynamic in innovation and a continuous flow of tourists towards Greece. Mr. Nicholas Christodoulidis, First Counsellor for Economic & Commercial Affairs, Head of Economic & Commercial Affairs Office at the Greek Embassy in Tel Aviv, explains to Ambrosia magazine how these facts, along with the high respect that Israelis hold for Greek f&b products, can work as a valuable asset for anyone who is willing to invest in the promotion of Greek food to Israel.

Interview: Charitomeni Vonta

What are the current terms of trade between Greece and Israel in the food and beverage sector?
It is a fact that the relations between the two countries are at an excellent level and the preference shown to Greece by hundreds of thousands of Israeli tourists every year, who obviously try Greek products and flavors in our country, is remarkable: it is estimated that in 2022 we surpassed the record of approximately 700,000 arrivals in 2019. However, it should be pointed out that the level of exports of Greek food products to Israel is not satisfactory. Typical of the current terms of trade is the fact that in 2021 the list of the 10 most important Greek products exported to Israel by value did not contain a single food product.

Which would you say are the main reasons for this lag?
The reasons for this lag are complex, but I could summarize them in two main parameters:
First, the structure of the internal market, which, until recently at least, maintained strong elements of protectionism, which has also led to large price increases in basic food items. However, there is currently a process of reversing this, with the new Israeli government following the example of the previous one, reducing or eliminating tariffs on a range of products, such as dairy, fish, etc. The import reform focuses on changing the methods of regulating imports into Israel, moving to declaration-based permits instead of inspections-based permits, for a significant number of products, while increasing post-market surveillance and shifting the responsibility for the safety of products to the importers. The expected benefits of the reform include the possibility of relying on international standardization, which will provide better access to global products and allow dealers to increase the variety of goods offered to Israeli consumers; as well as the reduction of direct costs for imported goods and go-to-market time due to the declaration of meeting regulation criteria.
Second, there is an entrenched tendency of internal market networks to promote domestic products, some of which, truth be told, are of high quality (especially vegetables and fruits). This tendency is compatible with the perennial policy of self-sufficiency that runs horizontally through the central choices of the state and market actors, for reasons that obviously have more to do with politics than the economy. However, Israel’s limited land and water resources preclude a high level of agricultural self-sufficiency. This affects local production costs and consumer prices. The country runs significant trade deficits in food and agricultural products, importing large amounts of animal feed and significant amounts of consumer-oriented food.

“It is estimated that in 2022 we surpassed the 2019 record of approximately 700,000 arrivals of Israeli tourists.”

Is there a Greek product or products that could develop good dynamics in the Israeli market?
I could point out Greek wines, which have already started to appear in ever more wineries. From purely nutritional products, dairy and cheeses, in which there is margin for gain with respect to tariff relief and the promotion of their authenticity, as well as their superior taste and quality. I would also add fish farming products, as well as olive oil products, packaged pulses and canned vegetables. We are referring to foods that are an integral part of the Mediterranean diet, which forms the basis of the most popular local dishes, although we should bear in mind that what we call “local cuisine” is a mixture of elements of various origins. Different culinary traditions are found in the country, starting from Eastern Europe and reaching North Africa. The Mediterranean influences are, of course, dominant.

What are the biggest challenges that a potential food importer has to face?
I would name three, the first being the Kosher certification. There is no legal obligation to obtain Kosher religious certification, which means that the product is suitable for consumption and has been produced according to the specifications of the Jewish religion, except for meat products. However, it is in the seller’s best interest to obtain it, because it will expand the buyer audience to which the products are addressed. Especially in the case of meat certification, there is an issue, because it is, in essence, impossible to import products from the EU that are not certified by the central rabbinical authority of Israel (for other food products, certification by the local rabbinical authorities is accepted).
The second is the extreme competitiveness of the Israeli market, therefore a systematic effort is required on the part of Greek exporters, in terms of establishing stable partnerships with Israeli importers and achieving a combination of competitive prices and product quality.
The third challenge is the current state of Israeli consumers, who are hit by an unprecedented wave of inflation and a general increase in the cost of living, and for this reason tend to prefer good quality private label products. Supermarket chains consider private label to be highly competitive compared to well-known brands: it suffices to cite Shufersal chain, Israel’s largest supermarket chain, where private label products account for approximately 60% of its total retail sales.

In terms of value, which are the most important food products that Greece exports to Israel?
It is mainly dairy products, and more specifically yogurts and related items, various vegetable oils, margarines, sugary products, light alcoholic beverages (mainly beers) and spirits (ouzo, etc.). It is obvious that the scope for increasing our exports is large and it is extremely important to understand that the Israeli market, thanks to the fact that Greece maintains a very strong brand name in this country, should enter the radar of Greek exporters and to make coordinated efforts to brand and promote Greek products.

“There is no legal obligation to obtain Kosher religious certification, however, it is in the seller’s best interest to obtain it, because it will expand the buyer audience to which the products are addressed.”

In your opinion, which is the best way to promote Greek f&b products?
From all classic branding and promotion tools, sending buyers to Greece (hosted buyer meetings) is preferred, especially for the Israeli market, as food exhibitions here are rather limited in size and scope. Another positive aspect that could (and should) also be exploited, with the synergies of all agencies involved, both state and private, is the dynamics of the continuous flow of tourists from Israel towards our country (it is estimated that Athens was the first destination for a city break in 2022), as well as the fact that more and more Israelis are buying homes in Greece.
We should also note that Israel is a technologically advanced, market-oriented economy. Consumers are knowledgeable about culinary trends and enjoy cosmopolitan tastes. Despite protests over food prices and the high cost of living, Israelis remain willing to pay more for high-value products as long as they are convinced of their quality. And as Greeks we don’t even have to do much to convince them. They have already tried and they know.
Potential exporters should establish business relationships with reliable and efficient Israeli importers and distributors. They, in turn, will help identify appropriate distribution and sales channels. Exporters should be encouraged to meet with Israeli importers to explore business opportunities. In Israel, a country with a deep Mediterranean business culture and mindset, face-to-face meetings build trust and facilitate communication.

Could you share with us a tip you consider valuable for anyone who wants to do business in Israel?
One final note is that Israeli consumers are interested in online shopping: the internet is widely used in Israel, as the country has one of the most dynamic markets in telecommunications and one of the highest broadband penetration rates in the world. According to the Israel Internet Association, 75% of Israelis (95% of total Internet users) shop online, making them the most connected shoppers in the world. In addition, 79% of Israeli online shoppers make purchases from foreign websites, according to a study conducted by PayPal and Ipsos.
Last, but certainly not least, in my opinion, exporters who are able to supply large quantities of their products should approach large food retail chains in the country, while smaller producers should focus more on delicatessens.

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