Two weeks away, the holy breezes of Ramadan already pervade Egypt’s polluted air. But, just as Ramadan lanterns light up, worries over Egyptian households’ Ramadan budgets seem to rise even higher.
In a month that is intended to have more spirituality and less consumption, meat — and lots of it — is still an inevitable guest at Egyptian iftar tables. The soaring price of meat is becoming a real worry for Egyptians, who will have to choose between cutting meat from their Ramadan diet, or spending a lot of money to purchase it.
A recent study by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics showed that Egyptians are facing one of the worst months in recent years for steadily increasing prices of meat, poultry and fish, with a rise of over 10 percent.
Figures that were published by the country’s statistics agency indicate that many new factors this year contributed to an already difficult situation; in particular, the wide outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, which has claimed the lives of thousands of cattle across the country.
Since its detection earlier this year, the disease has infected between 70,000 and 100,000 cattle, killing more than 10,000 and putting Egypt’s livestock at risk.
Haytham Mohamed, the deputy head of the butchers’ branch at the Cairo Chamber of Commerce predicts another sharp increase in meat prices as Ramadan approaches, as well as increases in poultry and fish prices.
Mohamed told Egypt Independent that the high prices are due to shortages in the local supply of red meat, as Cairo slaughterhouses received less cattle from governorates surrounding the capital than usual because of the foot-and-mouth outbreak. There are also import limits on both frozen meat and livestock since recent measures have extended customs’ exemptions on imported meat by a few extra days, contributing to the shortages.
In the wake of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, the butchers branch of the Cairo Chamber of Commerce criticized the decision issued by the Agriculture Ministry to ban the inter-governorate transportation of cattle in a bid to curb the infection rate. The chamber argued that such a step would lead to price hikes, particularly in Cairo, which relies heavily on livestock purchases from neighboring governorates.
The meat industry in Egypt has become a chronic problem. Increasingly high prices and lower supply, as well as a failure to create a long-term plan to maintain an adequate supply of local beef, are among the main contributors to the growing crisis.
For decades, the government used two main sources of meat. Two-thirds was domestically produced every year while a third was imported to make up the difference between local production of 700,000 tons and consumers’ yearly demand of 1,200,000 tons.
However, this year, the Egyptian government is looking for new solutions to meet the ever-increasing demand. Dr. Osama Salim, head of the General Authority for Veterinary Services, announced that Egypt imported 30,000 tons of meat from Brazil, India, Australia, Paraguay, Argentina and Canada in May, in preparation for the holy month of Ramadan, and in keeping with state policy to reduce meat prices.
As demand for affordable beef gathers momentum in Egypt, the government has come up with a quick fix to the problem by negotiating a new long-term deal involving Sudan exporting more than 50,000 cattle in its first year.
Sudan had already exported meat and cattle to Egypt in May, in accordance with an agreement between the two countries’ agriculture ministries.
Secretary General of the Sudanese Livestock and Meat Exporters Federation Siddig Haddoub said the deal is expected to generate large revenues for Sudan, and develop its national economy.
While Sudanese meat exports had been restricted in the past on quality grounds, Dr. Salim said a team of veterinarians was sent to inspect the live animals before slaughter to ensure they met Egyptian standards and were free from all contagious diseases and epidemics, before shipment to Egyptian ports.
Traditionally, Sudanese beef has not successfully penetrated the Egyptian market the way camel meat has. Egypt has imported large quantities of Sudanese camel meat for consumption.
Egyptians are enthusiastic meat-eaters in general, although there is no dedicated study on their meat-eating patterns. A poll published in 2010 by the Information and Decision Support Center of the Egyptian Cabinet revealed that the consumption of red meat was increasing dramatically.
The study showed that 11 percent of Egypt’s 80 million citizens eat an average of less than 2 kg of meat a month throughout the year, including the slaughter of animals during the Eid holiday.
It also provided stark statistics on meat consumption in the country, reporting that 32 percent of the population consume between 2 and 4 kg of meat on average per month; 30 percent eat 4 to 6 kg; 8 percent consume 6 to 8 kg; 6 percent consume between 8 and 10 kg while 7 percent of Egyptians eat more than 10 kg of meat per month.
However, a 2008 study by the US Department of Agriculture’s annual Livestock and Product Report on Egypt stated that the average per capita consumption of red meat is estimated at 8.5 kg per year, relatively low compared to consumption levels in other countries.
This low consumption is due mainly to the limited local production combined with low income. Accordingly, meat consumption is expected to decline further after the short supply of locally-produced meat drove prices up.
Nadia Safwat, a state employee, told Egypt Independent that the rising prices have taken a toll on Ramadan preparations. While getting ready to reflect on the spiritual significance of the blessed month, families now have to think creatively on how to use their budgets in the best way.
“There is a severe trust crisis between citizens and officials. It grew even worse after the revolution; there is vagueness surrounding the actual situation of foot-and-mouth vaccinations and if the disease slowed down or not.”
In a spontaneous conversation with a cab driver about the soaring prices, he admitted joyfully that he did not have to worry about meat anymore, since his youngest daughter had just got married to one of Dar al-Salam’s most renowned butchers.
“Worrying about meat prices for me is history. Now I get a good meat dinner three times a week,” he said, chuckling. He added that he only needed to open a grocery store to become truly self-sufficient.
However, many more people are being counted out of the meat game this year as beef prices hit LE80 per kg, driving poultry prices to rise exponentially by an average of 10.5 percent between February and March to reach LE19 per kg. The cost of fresh fish also climbed 13.5 percent month-on-month to reach LE16.7 per kg in March, according to the new study by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics.
Mohamed Khaled, a professor of meat hygiene, told Egypt Independent that the ongoing crisis is mainly due to corruption and mismanagement, which makes it hard, if not impossible, to get out of this vicious circle.
“The government left a very important topic such as Egyptian national food security in the hands of executive bodies instead of having strategic long-term plans to increase local production and its quality,” Khaled says.
Khaled points out that the problem is bigger than just rising prices, because people are also suspicious about the meat they eat.
“Every couple of months we hear about infected meat being seized. People are angry at the recurring meat crises, especially when infected meat has been sold causing widespread diseases, including the case we all remember of Indian meat infected with Sarcocystis worms in 2010.”
Just two weeks ago, the General Department of Food Supply Investigation Police seized 850 kg of meat of unknown origin, unfit for human consumption, in Giza.
According to investigations, the butcher had collected rotten meat from animal fat and other discarded animal parts, packaging it in bags and selling it on the market as imported meat. A veterinary report confirmed the meat was unfit for human consumption.
As a proactive step, some traders belonging to Salafi groups and the Muslim Brotherhood have put up large tents in slum areas, where they sell meat at low prices, ranging from LE20 to LE35.
However, Dr. Suad al-Kholi, the head of the Directorate of Veterinary Medicine in Cairo, warned against these unlicensed tents, emphasizing that the meat being sold did not come from government slaughterhouses and had not undergone any government inspections.
The complaints are not a new phenomenon. Egyptians have always objected to high meat prices. During mass protests under former President Anwar Sadat’s rule, people also protested the increase in meat prices, shouting that the price of meat had reached LE1.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.