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The meat politics is made of
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 08 - 07 - 2004

Are Sudanese beef exporters poised to grab a larger bite of the Egyptian market? Gamal Nkrumah sinks his teeth into the meat business
eefing up Egyptian-Sudanese trade has emerged as a top priority in the past few weeks. As the price of local and imported meat spirals, Egypt is looking south in search of cheaper alternatives. Last month, a barter deal between Egypt and Sudan was concluded under which Egypt is to import Sudanese meat in exchange for Egyptian consumer goods. Apart from the accord, the two governments also pledged to boost bilateral trade focussing first on meat and meat products. To that end, a number of joint ventures were launched recently.
A kilo of meat now costs as much as LE30, even LE40 in upmarket neighbourhoods. Accentuating inflationary pressures, the Egyptian pound fell dramatically against the US dollar in 2003, causing a large increase in the price of imported fodder which in turn resulted in a steep hike in the price of Egyptian beef.
While Sudanese meat was restricted in the past on quality grounds, it is relatively inexpensive. And as Egyptian officials argue, it is leaner and safer than other imported meat. Interestingly enough, one of the major reasons given by Egyptian policy-makers today for the import of Sudanese beef is the health- promoting attributes of the grass-fed livestock of Sudan. Sudanese cattle typically graze on grass, and Sudan's geographical proximity to Egypt makes Sudanese beef an attractive alternative to meat imports from countries further afield.
Just last month, Egypt's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Faiza Abul-Naga announced that Egypt will import 30 tonnes of Sudanese meat. Further, Egyptian aviation authorities announced recently that they had arranged for 75 flights by EgyptAir cargo planes to Sudan to fly back with the first batch of Sudanese beef. The flights will be on a weekly basis, one flight a week. Each flight will have 40 tonnes of beef aboard.
So what are the authorities cooking up for the country's less privileged classes? Traditionally, Egypt has imported large quantities of Sudanese camel meat for consumption by low-income groups, the meat being the key ingredient of the popular dish kofta, or minced meat fingers. Sudan exports livestock rather than packaged camel meat to Egypt. Egyptian authorities, though, prefer the meat to be packaged.
Sudanese beef has not successfully penetrated the Egyptian market the way camel meat has. There were some initial fears that Sudanese beef would flood the Egyptian market leading to a decline in the local Egyptian beef industry. There is also talk of stiff competition among Egyptian importers with some favouring South American and Australian beef.
But as demand for affordable beef gathers momentum in Egypt, Sudanese beef exports are poised to grab the meat import market shares. But problems persist as both Sudanese meat exporters and Egyptian meat importers are unhappy with certain aspects of the new policy, especially by the fact that they were not consulted.
Egyptian officials, however, are keen to facilitate the import of Sudanese beef for a number of reasons -- be they economic, cultural or political. They also want to dispel the widespread myth that cheaper Sudanese meat implies lower quality. The Sudanese authorities for their part are keen to do business with their Egyptian counterparts and boost bilateral trade.
With the attempted assassination of President Hosni Mubarak in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in 1995, and in which the Sudanese authorities and security apparatus at the time were implicated, bilateral relations between Egypt and Sudan plunged to an all- time low. Mounting political tension between Egypt and Sudan in the mid-1990s resulted in a sharp decline in Sudanese meat imports. Egypt then looked to other meat exporters such as Australia, the United States, India and the South American beef-exporting countries of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. During the past decade, Egyptian demand for beef soared and local meat production was insufficient to cover the country's insatiable appetite for meat.
Meat and livestock were imported in ever- increasing amounts but Sudan was not seriously regarded as a source of beef. The market for Sudanese camel meat in Egypt remained but Sudanese beef was not seriously considered as an alternative to US, Australian and South American beef until quite recently.
A number of Egyptian meat importers have vested interests in importing South American beef. But, as interest in Sudanese beef grows, will imports from other countries necessarily decline? Egyptian meat imports, in spite of growing demand for meat, declined sharply from $226 million in 2002 to $186 million in 2003.
Several questions crop up as Egypt opens it market to Sudanese meat.
Traditionally, animals from the Horn of Africa nations, including Sudan, were exported as livestock. But Egypt now prefers to buy beef slaughtered in Sudan at Egyptian- government approved abattoirs.
"The Sudanese government would prepare the livestock for slaughter in a Sudanese abattoir approved by the Egyptian authorities," Dr Hassan Eidaross, head of Egypt's General Organisation for Veterinary Services (GOVS) told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"The GOVS must first inspect and approve the Sudanese abattoirs concerned. An Egyptian veterinary inspection team is dispatched to Sudan to inspect livestock before slaughter," Eidaross explained. "The necessary tests are to be conducted in Sudanese laboratories. The animals are then slaughtered according to GOVS specifications. Sudanese veterinarians from the Sudanese Ministry of Animal Resources and Fisheries will also inspect the meat alongside their Egyptian counterparts in the Sudanese abattoirs approved by the GOVS," Eidaross added.
"If the meat is deemed fit for human consumption, it should be transported by air where it would be inspected again at the Egyptian airports," Eidaross said. He stressed that the GOVS would not approve of any sub- standard meat. "Only the meat of the healthiest animals will be imported."
Now that the Egyptian authorities have given the green light for importing more Sudanese beef, public interest in the quality of meat imported from Egypt's southern neighbour has grown. The proximity of Sudanese beef to the Egyptian market means that fresh Sudanese meat can be imported more quickly and easily into the country. So far Sudanese cattle are not given growth-enhancing hormones or animal bi-products. Neither are Sudanese cattle fed on anti-biotics and hormonal implants like most American and European cattle.
And while the quality of forage might vary considerably from one part of Sudan to another, Sudanese beef, mutton and camel meat are produced from pasture grazed animals and, therefore, do not contain growth- promoting additives. The pastures in Sudan where animals graze usually have no artificial fertiliser, pesticides or chemical spray.
It is widely assumed that Sudanese grass- fed beef, therefore, helps promote better health because it is naturally leaner than Egyptian grain-fed beef. But there are some residual concerns that Sudanese beef might contain other, usually unspecified, tropical diseases.
Since the news of an eminent influx of Sudanese meat the country has been agog with rumours that cheap Sudanese meat might be infected.
To allay these fears, the Egyptian authorities announced that Sudanese meat will be scrupulously inspected by Egyptian Ministry of Health officials and rated according to the standards and specifications of the World Health Organisation for Animal Health.
Egyptians are keen meat-eaters but they are fussy about the meat they eat. Health scares are prevalent in the country especially with regards to meat imported from Europe. The Egyptian public fears that the meat it imports from abroad is contaminated and diseased. The spread of bovine spongiform encephaopathy or BSE, better known as mad cow disease, in European Union countries was given wide coverage by the Egyptian press.
Abdel-Fattah Beheiri, president of the Egyptian-Sudanese Business Association, said the government's decision to import more Sudanese beef was long overdue. Eidaross, however, said the delay was partly due to the insistence of the ministry that the imported meat be boned, filleted and frozen for "marketing purposes".
Sudanese meat traders are weary of the new deal. Sudanese meat merchant Kamal Ibrahim said the Sudanese Agricultural Minister Maghzoub Al-Khalifa had given the Egyptian authorities a false impression of the meat industry in Sudan. According to Ibrahim, the real cost of Sudanese meat is far higher than the price stated by the Sudanese minister. Ibrahim said that Sudanese meat exporters were excluded from the deal.
The deal between Egypt and Sudan was signed by the Sudanese company Al-Kimaiya and Egypt's Meditrade. Under the deal, Sudan is to export meat at the cost of $1,200 per tonne of beef, while livestock costs $2,400 per tonne. The Sudanese government pledged to subsidise Sudanese exporters who warn that the current deal is untenable and that a new deal will have to be negotiated.
Climatic conditions and the crisis in Darfur compound the problem of exporting Sudanese meat. Under normal circumstances, during the rainy season, cattle is not sent from Darfur to Khartoum for export. Much of Sudan' s cattle wealth is geographically concentrated in the country's western provinces of Kordofan and Darfur. In the wet season -- June to September -- herds remain in Darfur and Kordofan where pasture is plentiful. War has disrupted the tradition as refugees flee the fighting in rural Darfur, with the armed so- called janjaweed militias leaving behind a bloody trail of death and destruction impacting both man and beast.

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