Israelis turn to Facebook in dairy revolt

JERUSALEM Thu Jun 16, 2011 7:39am EDT

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israelis are cheesed off and they're turning to Facebook to spread the word.

Using the same social networking tool that has helped to fuel political revolt in the Middle East, more than 60,000 people in Israel have rallied to a call to defend a beloved staple of their society.

Cottage cheese.

Removal of some government controls on dairy products last year has blown the lid off the price of the locally made small curd cheese. Facebook pages are calling for a month-long boycott of the product starting on July 1.

It could all mean a tub of trouble for the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has seen food prices rise 3.6 percent so far this year.

Looking bemused, he watched an opposition lawmaker, quipping that she was giving Netanyahu a "luxury item gift," place a container of cottage cheese on his desk in parliament during a debate on Wednesday on frozen peace talks with the Palestinians.

But his finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, signaled the government might take action to try to quell the protest.

"We are thinking of allowing parallel imports of dairy products and cheeses," he told reporters. "That's the surest way to create competition and lower the prices of milk and cottage cheese in Israel."

Cottage cheese in Israel is produced by three main dairies and a 250 gram (9 ounce) container sells for about 8 shekels ($2.30), a 75 percent jump since the government price cap was removed last year.

"Let it stay in the stores and spoil until the price comes down," said a headline on the boycott page created on Facebook by Itzik Alrov, a 25-year-old cantor, who sings prayers in religious services.

The mix of locally produced cottage cheese -- which many Israelis believe tastes better than chunkier foreign equivalents -- and rare consumer protest was a recipe for headlines in the country's leading newspapers and a main topic on TV and radio talk shows.

"White gold," read one headline in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, which carried an interview with the widow of the man it said invented the Israeli version of cottage cheese.

"He would have joined the boycott," Shlomit Stauber was quoted as saying about her late husband, Yisrael, who developed the cheese for Israel's Tnuva dairy conglomerate.

"Only Yisrael and a few other people knew the secret formula, just like Coca-Cola," she said.

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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