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How Egypt's Massive Halal Meat Market Turned Into A Monopoly

A butcher in Port Said, Egypt
A butcher in Port Said, Egypt
Nada Arafat

CAIRO — In Egypt, all imported meat must be certified as "halal," meaning that it has been procured, stored and shipped in accordance with Islamic law. Obtaining this certificate is a crucial requirement for meat suppliers to be able to access the lucrative Egyptian market.

The Egyptian government licenses a number of "certifiers' around the world whose job it is to ensure that exporting slaughterhouses are complying with halal requirements. And while the certification rules are numerous and complex, they are still tolerable, according to a US-based meat exporter, who said they hadn't had a problem bringing their products into Egypt.

Or at least that was the case until May 2019, when the Agriculture Ministry abruptly disqualified all halal certifiers eligible to operate in the United States, except for one newly licensed company: IS EG Halal Certified. Five months later, the ministry awarded the same company exclusive certification rights in South America as well, a major source of Egypt's imported meat.

Brazil exported 171,000 metric tons of frozen beef to Egypt in 2018, making them the largest exporter of beef to Egypt, according to the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) office in Cairo, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The U.S. supplies the majority of Egypt's beef liver and offal imports, with 62,200 metric tons in 2018.

IS EG remains an unknown entity for many in the market, including to both importers and exporters, as well as to foreign governments. A May report by FAS Cairo described it as a non-governmental company established in November 2017, with no prior experience in halal certification or pre-existing ties to the American beef industry. IS EG only started operations this past May, immediately after the Agriculture Ministry's decision, the report said.

The company's first order of business, days after it became the exclusive certifier, was to raise certification fees in North America, translating into millions of dollars of extra revenue, according to calculations made by Mada Masr. The FAS estimates that the price of American beef liver in the Egyptian market rose by about 13 Egyptian pounds per kilo (81 U.S. cents) following the move.

An investigation by Mada Masr has revealed that IS EG operates alongside another private firm that is linked to a "sovereign entity," a term used to refer to high-level security institutions in government. Together, the two companies have monopolized the multi-million dollar business of certifying imported beef in Egypt.

Certification firms provide Islam-compliant cattle slaughtering services to meat suppliers in exporting countries, according to statements by Yousef Shalaby, former head of the General Authority for Veterinary Services's quarantine department.

A committee from the Agriculture Ministry periodically visits slaughterhouses abroad to ensure compliance with Egyptian standards and their registration with Egyptian embassies in exporting countries. These periodic audits can result in approval, rejection with a justification, or a recommendation with notes to revise certain practices pending approval, according to the Egyptian Organization for Standardization and Quality.

Meat exporters in the US and South America have worked with dozens of certification firms across the region without trouble for decades. The decision to exclude all these firms for the sake of a single company with no prior experience came as a shock.

In May, the FAS said it received notification from the General Authority for Veterinary Services that the seven certifiers operating in the US had been suspended or rejected without explanation and that IS EG was the only eligible firm remaining.

Once it was made the sole halal certifier, IS EG immediately raised fees.

The same happened with certifiers in South America. The Agriculture Ministry has yet to provide any justification for why one company was made the sole halal certifier for South America, according to Sergio Remeles, representative of the Brazilian Beef Exporters Association.

Once it was made the sole halal certifier, IS EG immediately raised the fees for its services by an astronomical amount, according to Sherif Ashour, a meat importer who has dealt with the firm and imported several shipments through them. Certification fees for one container (27 metric tons) jumped from $200 to over $5,000 in the US, and from $250 to $1,500 in South America.

The process by which a number of halal certifiers had their contracts canceled appears to have been arbitrary and abrupt.

The manager of one of the disqualified certifiers, speaking to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, said that his company received notification in early 2019 that it would be subject to a surprise audit. The move was unprecedented in the company's 10 years of operations and was wholly unexpected given that no complaints had been filed against it, the manager said. Other certifiers were subject to a similar process, according to the FAS report.

Officials from different departments within the Agriculture Ministry visited the company in the United States for the audit, the manager said, and requested numerous documents concerning the company's operations, including its dealings with countries other than Egypt. While the request was baseless, the company complied. The officials spent seven hours examining and photocopying documents before leaving the premises with little explanation. A few months later, the company was disqualified without justification.

Several other certifiers contacted by Mada Masr declined to comment on the issue in the hope that the government would reverse its decision.

The Agriculture Ministry's spokesperson, Mohamed El Kersh, declined to comment on the issue, referring Mada Masr to Ahmed Abdel Karim, the head ofveterinary association's quarantine division. Karim did not respond to questions posed by Mada Masr for this report.

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