Bird flu hits Egypt's multi-billion-dollar poultry industry

Daily Star Egypt Staff
5 Min Read

CAIRO: The sudden outbreak of avian influenza in Egypt has dealt a huge blow to the poultry industry, in a country which consumes 800 million birds a year and exports to the entire region. The destruction of flocks and transport restrictions imposed by the authorities to stem the spread of the disease are costing the industry an estimated $ 1.7 million a day, according to the state-owned Al-Akhbar daily. Poultry features heavily in the Egyptian diet and supports a huge industry which employs around two million Egyptians, said Magdy Al-Sebaie, general manager of Cairo Poultry, the country s leading processed chicken producer with sales of $161 million in 2004. The poultry market in the Arab world s most populous country weighs an estimated $2.8 billion and experts fear a dramatic slump following last week s first confirmed outbreak in Egypt. “This crisis will have many negative repercussions, which will affect primarily the small farms, said Tarek Tawfik, who heads Farm Frites, one of Egypt s largest food businesses. The bulk of the cases of the virus s deadly H5N1 strain were detected in birds reared on domestic farms, which escape government control. The authorities have ordered a crackdown on rooftop and backyard farms, where the risk of human infection is also higher although no cases have yet been reported. The government has also banned the transport of poultry between the country s 26 governorates, about half of which are affected by the epidemic. It nevertheless promised financial compensation for poultry producers and asked the state-run agricultural development bank to freeze interests on loans and arrears. “Everybody is worried, nobody is buying chicken, said Sebaie, whose Cairo Poultry group exports to several countries in the region. Egypt s many chicken restaurants are deserted and poultry is increasingly hard to come by in supermarkets, despite the sharp rise of fish and other meat prices caused by the bird flu outbreak. Products such as eggs and mayonnaise have suffered the same fate. “Demand dropped drastically as soon as the bird flu outbreak was reported (last week). Since then, nobody has been asking for chicken. Our management has therefore ordered to stop selling poultry until this matter is resolved, said a salesman in one of Cairo s major food retail companies. “Red meat and fish have replaced chicken on our dining table but we are suffering from high prices, said Ismailiya Kadri, a 62-year-old shopper. The authorities have sought to reassure consumers by issuing guidelines on how to handle and cook poultry products safely but many Egyptians remain ill-informed on the risks and have steered clear of their favorite meat. Fayoum Governor Magdi Kubaisi visited several restaurants in his province and sunk his teeth into a piece of chicken in front of a crowd of local residents and photographers. But such initiatives have not prevented the spread of various rumors, such as one widely circulated by SMS Tuesday and alleging the Nile was contaminated after farmers in southern Egypt disposed of their dead birds in the river. Tawfik told AFP that his company and others in Egypt s private sector were about to launch a mass-media campaign to raise public awareness on the issue and attempt to regain consumer trust. He predicted the fallout of the bird flu crisis would only be temporary, as was the case for the mad cow disease in the 1990s. “I cannot tell you whether this phase will last one, two or six months, but the sector will eventually pick up again, he said. “At the end of the day, it ll be the consumer who will pay because production costs will rise due to new sanitary restrictions and the prices will also be hiked, Tawfik said. Businessmen and experts hope the bird flu crisis will speed up the sector s modernization from a domestic-based farming system to a more integrated industry conforming to international standards. AFP

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