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Stores target matzo in Passover price war

A young Orthodox Jewish boy inspects a matzo, the unleavened bread which will be eaten during the upcoming Jewish holiday of Pesach (Passover), at a bakery in the central Israeli town of Kfar Habad. American supermarkets have been choosing Israeli-made matzo over American-made brands thanks to lower labor costs.

Sarah Gardner: Been to the grocery store this week? It's all chocolate Easter bunnies and marshmellow Peeps. There are also stacks and stacks of matzo for Passover, which starts tomorrow night.

But apparently there's a controversy stirring in the matzo marketplace. Paul Berger reports for the Jewish Daily Forward. Paul, thanks for joining us.

Paul Berger: Thank you for having me.

Gardner: I guess you recently have been investigating matzo sales and you found that there's a bit of a battle going on between American-made matzo and Israeli-made matzo. What's going on?

Berger: Right. Well, basically, supermarkets have been heavily discounting or even giving away matzo for free every Passover for many years. But what I've found is that in recent years, particularly this year and last year, they seem to be giving away more and more of the Israeli matzo at the expense of American matzo manufacturers.

Gardner: Is that because the Israeli matzo is a lot cheaper?

Berger: Well yeah. You would like it if it was actually because this is what consumers want, but it all comes down to price and the Israeli matzo appears to be considerably cheaper than American matzo.

Gardner: In your investigation, did you find out why?

Berger: Matzo is a very, very simple product -- it's flour and water baked for less than 18 minutes and you're pretty much done. So of course, the price of flour could be a factor. But according to the head of Streit's, which is an iconic mom-and-pop matzo manufacturer on the Lower East Side, really it's labor costs. Labor costs in Israel are lower than they are in the United States and at least for the company Streit's, they just say they can't compete.

Gardner: Yeah. So matzo is a loss leader -- they use it to get people into the stores to sell them the more expensive stuff like what, gefilte fish or what?

Berger: I don't know what there is that's actually more expensive, but I do know an Israeli importer of matzo and other kosher products told me that the Passover shopper is estimated to be worth between $1,500 and $2,000 when they're done with all their shopping. So it makes sense to give away this $5 bundle of matzo at a loss.

Gardner: $2,000, is that right?

Berger: Apparently, yeah.

Gardner: Wow.

Berger: You have to remember that for observing Jews at Passover time, they have to literally clear out all their cupboards, their fridge and everything that they buy in has to be kosher for Passover. So, you know, we're not just talking about buying, as you say, matzo and gefilte fish, but we're talking about mayonnaise and applesauce as well.

Gardner: Now, do shoppers care about the branding? Do American Jews want to buy American-made matzo?

Berger: There are some people out there who have a preference for a particular brand of matzo, but I think if you asked most Jews out there which was their favorite brand of matzo, they would probably say they didn't have a preference, because I don't think actually most people particularly look forward to eating matzo. In my house when I was growing up in the U.K., it was a novelty, but it was a novelty that quickly wore off within 24 hours and then you had another week of having to get through this stuff.

Gardner: Yeah. Now I've got to ask you: Have you done a taste test on this yourself? Have you tried all the brands?

Berger: I think that would classed as cruel and unusual punishment. I did not put myself through that, although I have to admit that I did, while I was in the store doing research, I picked up a pack of Streit's whole wheat matzo, which I'd never had before, so I'll be opening that this Passover.

Gardner: All right. Paul Berger is a reporter with the Jewish Daily Forward. Paul, thanks a lot.

Berger: Thank you.

Gardner: You know, I just saw a recipe for matzo chilaquiles -- might be good. Do you have any favorite recipes for making the humble matzo more, well, exciting? We want to see 'em. Send your recipes to us.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk.

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