Boycott might not cure Egypt's cow price madness

Sherif Tarek , Thursday 3 Sep 2015

Soaring red meat prices have led to the emergence of a number of campaigns across the country calling for a boycott of butchers; however, butchers say unaddressed issues not 'their greed' pushed up prices

Egyptian butcher hangs meat at a market in Cairo
An Egyptian butcher hangs meat at a market in Cairo, January 5, 2015. The banner, in the colours of the national flag reads: "Challenge of price rises, Buy the lowest prices." (Reuters)

After red meat prices reached new heights of late, two bankers in the Upper Egypt city of Nagaa Hamadi launched a campaign calling for a boycott of all butchers, joining similar calls across the country in protest against continuous hikes of animal protein prices.

Average domestic red meat prices in Egypt increased by 298.2 percent in the last 13 years, from LE17 per kilo in 2000 to LE67.7 in 2013, according to Egypt's state statistics body CAPMAS. In 2015, the price per kilo increased to LE85 ($11) on average.

Balaha Lahma, or We Can Do Without Meat, is the name of the campaign, and of all other similar campaigns in many Egyptian cities, mostly in Upper Egypt where poverty is rampant.

Such campaigns are not necessarily related to one another in terms of coordination or approaches. A namesake hashtag went viral on social media for the past few weeks to promote the meat boycott, and express public dissatisfaction over meat prices.

The identity of the founder of the first campaign to boycott red meat in Egypt is not confirmed, with conflicting reports from different sources on who initiated it.

What's undeniable, however, is that the campaign has caught momentum and many have been replicating it with the goal of reducing red meat prices.

"Four months ago one kilo of red meat would stand at around LE60," said mid-August Yasser Helal, who launched the campaign in Nagaa Hamadi with Ahmed Farouk, his co-worker at the Principal Bank for Development and Agricultural Credit.

"It has increased by one third over the course of that period of time, so we decided to launch our own campaign to boycott meat."

Both men have depended on word-of-mouth communication to promote their campaign. "We basically ask our friends and co-workers to join in, and they would do the same with people they know, and so on," Helal said.

Red meat has long been considered overpriced in Egypt, especially among the working classes, among which the underpaid can only afford it intermittently. The 2013 average weekly salary in Egypt was estimated at LE761 ($106.40), according to CAPMAS.

Egypt saw inflation soar in recent years with an average of 10.8 percent in the past 12 months.

"Many people responded to our calls because they can't afford it anymore, though still some people would argue meat is indispensable in the food basket. Meanwhile, butchers refuse to reduce prices … they are just greedy."

Market factors

A butcher in Cairo who preferred to speak on condition of anonymity refuted allegations that he and his peers are driven by greed, an accusation that is occasionally triggered against traders in Egypt.

"Prices of red meat, like any other products, are affected by market factors," he said. "They are affected by supply and demand as well as the costs of production. People think we can just bring prices down while we really can't. If we do, we will have no profit margin or even be in the red."

"It is not the first time in Egypt that we see hiked prices for red meat and it won't be the last. People are just boycotting because of the media hype, without understanding what's really going on. And it won't pay off in terms of better prices," he added.

A number of well-known TV presenters, including Ahmed Moussa and Youssef El-Husseini, vocally endorsed through their respective programmes the Balaha Lahma campaigns, calling on people to boycott red meat and consume only poultry and seafood in order to force a reduction in prices.

The Cairo-based butcher, whose sentiments were echoed by many of his peers, sees two main factors to make red meat more affordable.

"You want to bring prices down? Then first authorities need to make illegal the slaughter of female cattle; the more female cattle we have, the higher the production will be since they give birth regularly. With no ban, female cattle have been slaughtered all over Egypt," he said.

"Another thing is to increase domestic production of fodder. We import a lot of it to cover the consumption rate, so its prices fluctuate as a result, and these days they are up. Therefore, farmers have to increase the prices of cattle, since feeding them costs them more, and, in turn, butchers have to do the same."

Egypt's operating factories for the production of cattle feed reached 150 plants in 2013, according to CAPMAS. These factories actual production is 1.1 million tonnes, whereas their total capacity is 4.4 million tonnes, meaning unused capacity stands at 74.8 percent.

Imports have become more costly since the 2011 uprising as the pound lost around 30 percent of its value to reach 7.73 per dollar today, compared to 5.9 in January 2011.

More domestic fodder production and banning the slaughter of female cattle were also recently cited by Minister of Agriculture Salah Hilal as ways to pressure price of red meat downwards. Hilal has also highlighted the importance of starting more slaughterhouses to increase red meat production.

Yet he has not unveiled an implementation plan by the government.

Red meat season: Eid Al-Adha

The meat-boycotting campaigns in Egypt have appeared in the weeks leading up to the Islamic four-day Eid Al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice, which is due 23 September.

The occasion honours the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his young first-born son Ismail as an act of submission to God’s command, before God intervened to provide Abraham with a lamb to sacrifice instead.

Observers of Eid Al-Adha slaughter cattle, mostly sheep, making the occasion in Muslim-majority Egypt a peak period for the meat market.

The high consumption of beef and lamb usually increases prices during that time of the year, regardless of other market factors.

Three weeks ahead of Eid Al-Adha, prices of lamb meat and sheep, like other cattle, have expectedly gone up. Apart from the fact that it's high season, sheep price hikes result from the same factors that have rendered beef more expensive.

"Sheep eat a lot," said Mohamed Farahat, who grows and sells sheep ahead of Eid Al-Adha every year.

"Fodder is increasingly costly these days. For example a bag of corn that is usually mixed with fodder costs LE110. Last year its price ranged from LE60 to LE65."

"Today, a sheep would cost LE40 to LE41 per kilo. Last year the average was LE35 to LE36 per kilo. Today, buying one sheep and slaughtering it could cost around LE3000, which means prices have tripled or so over the past three years."

Farahat, who lives in Cairo's impoverished district of Beau Lac du Caire, expects to struggle to sell out his sheep before Eid Al-Adha.

"People are already having a hard time coping with high prices of everything, and keep complaining about that. It is very hard for many to sacrifice sheep this year with such prices."

"Usually with Eid Al-Adha that close, people would come to tell me how many sheep they want and if they want me to slaughter the animals for them and when. I would have customers for every sheep I want to sell. But this year, no one asked for anything," Farahat explained, almost three weeks ahead of the 2015 Eid Al-Adha.

The Ministry of Supply announced earlier in August that it plans to curb meat price hikes by injecting into the market low priced meat imported from Sudan, Brazil, Ethiopia, Uruguay and Australia. The ministry also plans to make available more frozen meat, which is less pricey.

According to CAPMAS, Egypt's self-sufficiency ratio of red meat decreased from 75.4 percent in 2000 to 74.3 percent in 2013.

The gap between production and what is available for consumption increased from 229,000 tonnes to 333,000 tonnes during the same period.

The same CAPMAS report expected average per capita consumption of red meat to decrease gradually starting 2014 to reach 14.6 kilos per year in 2018, with an average drop of 0.1 kilo per year, due to the continuing increase in population that is not met by parallel growth in livestock.

The government has started to increase their supply of meat at lower prices to compete with market prices, Minister of Supply and Internal Trade Khaled Hanafy told the press last week.

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