When the outbreak of the H1N1 influenza hit newsstands in March 2009, Medhat Bulous knew that his family owned pork business, Morcos, was in muddy waters. What he didn’t know was that he would be forced to shut down his enterprise forever.
Bulous and his family were proud of their flourishing business which their grandfather established and eponymously named in 1917. Morcos’ children and grandchildren, including Bulous, preserved the family business and soon developed it into a chain of four shops across Cairo, maintaining a reputation for premium quality pork products.
But in May 2009 with the emergence of H1N1, the first flu pandemic in 40 years, the Egyptian government began culling the pigs claiming it was the most effective measure to stop the "swine flu" from spreading.
Despite the UN’s insistence that the culling was a “real mistake,” and the World Health Organisation’s assurances that that there was no evidence tying pigs to the transmission of the virus to humans, Egypt went ahead and slaughtered, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, 156,000 pigs. The Arab Republic was the only nation to take such controversial steps.
The country’s Coptic Christians enraged by the decision spoke of sectarianism and indicted that the butchering was driven by bigotry. After all Muslims deemed the animal impure
Watching the news progress, Boulos hoped his family business would be spared.
“I thought the worst they would do is get rid of the pigsties and introduce medical precautions in the industry to ensure that the slaughtering of pork is more hygienic,” he said. “What didn’t cross my mind is that they would slaughter all of them and that quickly.”
Boulos’s own farm in Giza had a working veterinarian who made sure the pigs were healthy and well fed. On that fateful day, officials from the Ministry of Health told him that his pigs were in top shape only to slaughter them anyways.
According to Boulos, Egypt had the highest quality pork in the world due to pure breeding. Due to laws obstructing the transport of live pigs, Egyptian pigs never mixed with other swine. In fact, the Egyptian breed could be traced all the way back to the Pharaohs, asserted Boulos.
The closing of his shop also meant that 100 employees had to be let go.
“Most of the pork meat we have now is mostly imported from Brazil, but it is frozen and is not as tasty as ours,” he said.
Whatever the reasons behind the culling, many in the pork industry are still suffering from the loss. The Zabbaleen, an area in Muqattam made mostly of garbage collectors, many of whom used pigs to get rid of the organic waste from the garbage felt that the pig extermination took a direct stab at their livelihood and way of life.Ayoub Nabil, a 22 year old garbage collector and a resident of Zabbaleen, had to sell his 50 pigs to local butchers to try and cut his losses.
“These pigs helped in so many ways,” explained Nabil. “Firstly I fed them the garbage so I didn’t have to pay for their food, secondly, they helped me get rid of the organic waste in the garbage and thirdly I sold their babies and made money off them.”
Nabil who collects garbage from the suburb of Shubra now must now pay LE 150 for a car service to get rid of the organic waste.
“This is a lot of money for me because I am poor. I live under the poverty line as they say. I am just a young garbage collector, can you imagine the losses for the bigger garbage collectors who sometimes work on entire suburbs and not just one street?” he asked.
Hanan Roshdy, the executive secretary of The Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) that works with the residents of the Zabbaleen area, says that each family owned between 50 and 100 pigs, all of which were killed. The government had promised to compensate the farmers with around LE 50 to LE 250, but it was not enough, she says.
Perceiving the desperation of Zabbaleen farmers, some pig merchants took advantage of the critical situation and offered to buy the pigs for very little money.
“Sometimes they would buy 100 pigs for only LE 1000,” says Roshdy. “Each of these pigs cost LE 200, so these people lost a lot of money.”
Roshdy also insists that the culling had a negative impact on the environment. With nowhere to put the organic waste, most farmers now dump it in the street. Walking through the area, it is impossible not to step on the garbage that litters the street.
“Some throw it in dumps, but no amount of garbage dumps will be able to take this garbage,” says Roshdy.
Away from the Zabaleen and into Cairo’s more affluent streets, the problem continues. A well known pizza chain had to stop selling pork because no one was selling it. The spokesperson of the shop, who did not want his name or the name of the shop to be identified, said that they lost many of their customers after the extermination.
“Almost 90% of our customers are expats who used to come to us to eat good quality pork,” says the spokesperson. “Now people turn away disappointed when we tell them that we don’t sell it anymore.”
Lavas, a grocery which sells pork among other deli products in the Roxy suburb east of Cairo, is also struggling. The shop owner who wished to remain anonymous said, “I now buy my pork from companies that bring it over from overseas so the prices have gone up by LE 10 per kilo.”
Milad Youssef, one of the owners of Ramses, a manufacturer and retailer of pork says his company is also suffering. Since the mass killing, they had to rely on importing all their meat from overseas, which meant that his prices soared.
“Our company has been crushed and after two years we are still suffering the consequences,” says Youssef.
Youssef points out that he and all the others who suffered including the pig farmers, owners of pigsty’s, shops and supermarkets are waiting for the government to allow them to raise pigs again.
The government, he says, offered the pig farmers to raise their stock in the 15th of May or the Kuraymat suburbs, but he says they are too far and they should be given closer places like Katameya.
Until then, he says, life for most people in the pig industry has become uncertain and confusing. “I want to know what is our fate?” asks Youssef. “What will happen to the thousands of people who have lost their jobs because of the slaughter? We need to urgently do something about this problem. Please someone help us.”