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Seeing red
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 29 - 01 - 2004

As the Eid Al-Adha approaches, Lina Mahmoud investigates the dynamics of meat eating in the light of inflation and mad cow disease
"The government and the press are scaring people with all this talk of mad cow disease," Shadiah Mohamed, an imported meat vendor, divulges. "We've been selling the same meat for years and nobody has ever suffered as a result of eating it. Why all this scary talk of illness. Don't the mad cows appear until the Eid? When people come to shop, they just look at the meat. They don't buy it. It's even worse because the price has gone up from LE11 to LE17 a kilo. I used to sell 50 to 60 packages at this time of year. This year I've barely managed to sell four. Imported meat is cheap enough for the poor to afford it, at least to celebrate the Eid. Now that the prices have gone up they can't afford it, and even if they can they are scared of mad cow disease. What are they going to celebrate the Eid with, can you tell me..."
Eid Al-Adha is the red meat feast: sacrificial sheep (or, sometimes, goats or calves) are bought live in advance and ritually slaughtered after the Eid prayers, to take place on 1 February this year. Both prayers and sacrifice are examples of Sunna -- non- obligatory rites that, rather than being dictated by Muslim law, are performed as a way of following the example of Prophet Mohamed. The slaughter in particular is a Sunna that tends to be observed by all those who can afford it; and only one third of the meat thus obtained is meant to be consumed by the family that performs the sacrifice; the rest is handed over to relatives and the poor. For Muslims who cannot afford a sacrificial animal, on the other hand, the event is marked by the consumption of meat -- for many this is the only meat dish of the year -- whether obtained from the better off or bought from vendors like Shadiah.
This year, however, the cost of meat will make the Eid a trying time, the prices having risen exponentially as a result of the ban on meat imports from both the United States and Europe -- a precautionary measure intended to fend off bovine spongiform encephalopathy infection, a variant of the brain-wasting illness creutzfeldt- Jakob, otherwise known as mad cow disease. According to Minister of Agriculture Youssef Wali, the ban, having reduced supply, did contribute to raising the price of Eid meat. Wali insisted that the market is nonetheless well stocked, with 45,000 cows, 140,000 sheep, 25,000 camels as well as 5000 cows imported from Australia. The price of lamb, he declared, should range from LE10 to LE11 per kilogramme, while beef should cost no more than LE21 per kilogramme. Following Eid, Wali added, when demand falls back to normal, the prices will fall once again.
Yet even despite the ban, and the consequent rise in the cost of meat, people continue to be concerned about mad cow disease. "I am trying to minimise the risk by buying limited quantities from a butcher whom I know to be trustworthy," Amal Mohamed, a 45-year-old housewife, explains. "And I've managed to convince my children not eat red meat outside the house." At another well- known butcher's customers were only asking for the baladi (locally produced) beef cuts.
"I never buy imported meat," Elham Mustafa, another housewife, declares. "It tastes better. And then," she added, "you just don't know where the imported meat has come from, do you?" Others avoid red meat altogether "I tried to convince my family that we should not buy red meat this year." Thus Nagwa Ismail, an accountant and housewife. "I said, 'I will bring you a turkey and pigeons -- they're nicer.' But they insisted, they couldn't bear not having their Eid meat."
Alaa Ma'rouf, owner of the Anwar Al-Madina meat import company, complains that the ban is not restricted to the States and Europe, but covers imports from countries like India, where there have been no recorded cases of mad cow disease. "Indian meat is very cheap," Ma'rouf says. "I don't know why they've stopped it. Now we must depend wholly on Brazil, which has very little to offer because the whole world, including America and Japan, are buying Brazilian meat." Ma'rouf adds that, though 14 official departments are responsible for overseeing meat imports, the procedures take too long.
Yet according to Ezzat Orabi, a Cairo University law professor, writing in Al Akhbar, it is precisely the temporary permit to sell -- and other measures meant to facilitate or speed up the inspection procedures -- that allow importers room for manoeuvre, often resulting in the sale of infected meat. Samiha El-Qaliouby, another law professor writing in the same newspaper, likewise calls for stricter regulations to govern meat imports. One to five years in prison, or a fine of LE25,000 to LE100,000 -- the commercial-fraud punishments for importing food unfit for consumption -- are not prohibitive enough, she says.
At the Basatin Mechanical Slaughterhouse, the principle slaughterhouse in Cairo, people are in a defensive mood. Hussein Khalafallah, the slaughterhouse manager, explains that animals undergo a medical examination prior to their slaughter; only healthy animals are used to produce meat, he says, while the rest are disposed of immediately. Healthy meat is stamped to indicate the date of slaughter, the slaughterhouse in which it was undertaken and the kind of meat it is -- the "red stamp" he refers to, Khalafallah insisted, is a sufficient indication of the fact that the meat is safe to eat. Yet it seems meat vendors are feeling particularly vulnerable these days, for the aforementioned defensive mood could be felt at supermarkets as well. "We only sell baladi meat," Adel Ahmed, the manager of a prominent supermarket urges. "We don't offer anything imported -- as you can see," he adds, "we don't sell alcohol either."
Signs of a healthy sheep: + Strong teeth
+ Weight ranging from 50 to 70 kilogrammes
+ Muscle between the vertebras
+ Appetite and energy

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