US & World

Israeli Tariff Burdens Supplier Of Gefilte Fish

Israel recently reinstated a large import tax on Asian carp, which has hurt business for one of the largest producers of the fish, Schafer Fisheries in Thomson, Ill. Asian carp is used to make gefilte fish, a Jewish delicacy and staple at many Passover Seders.

As Passover nears, there is a crisis of gefilte fish, a staple at many Seders. The Jewish delicacy is made up of ground fish, often carp. In Israel, mostly Asian carp is used to make gefilte fish, and the country imports the vast majority of this type of carp from Schafer Fisheries in Thomson, Ill.

But recently the Israeli government reinstated a hefty import tax on Asian carp, holding up almost 400,000 pounds of Schafer's frozen carp.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gotten involved, and some of the fish has been let into Israel. But far more remains in limbo.

"The tariff is 120 percent of the value of the fish," Schafer Fisheries owner Mike Schafer tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "So, it's basically around $1.10-a-pound tariff on the product."

Over the past several years that Schafer Fisheries was selling Asian carp to Israel, there was no tariff on the fish. "This really came as a surprise to us," Schafer says. "We weren't aware of it, and we were producing large numbers of them and freezing them."

And the Israeli factory that produces the gefilte fish would rather keep the fish offshore than pay the tax that, in effect, doubles the cost of the product.

As a result, Schafer's business is hurting. He has laid off nine people and says it is difficult to stay in business and continue to buy the same amount of Asian carp.

To add to Schafer's problem, Illinois wants Schafer Fisheries to increase its production of Asian carp for environmental reasons. The fish, which swims upstream in the Mississippi, can grow to be 4 feet long and weigh 100 pounds, and it consumes large amounts of the living organisms found in lakes. The fish consume so much of the living organisms that Asian carp could ravage fisheries in the Great Lakes, Michigan's attorney general said recently.

"Last year, we handled a little over 12 million pounds of them, and they would like to see us step that up to 36 million for this coming season," Schafer says. "They want to control the population of the fish."

But Schafer says is he trying to get Asian carp recognized as a food source for humanitarian food aid — as a protein source.

"Right now, if you think about (it), Haiti's using over a million pounds a day of imported protein source," Schafer says. "There's a huge demand there, and this could be a very viable food source for helping those people."

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