The article below was originally published by the Daily News Egypt on June 5, 2009. Audio slideshow above produced to correspond to the written story.
CAIRO, Egypt – Confusion, anger, and fear have struck owners and employees of Egypt’s embattled pork industry, as government plans to slaughter the country’s pigs moves forward.
Last week, the Egyptian government began culling the country’s estimated 300,000 pigs to quell concerns over the spreading of the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu.
With the stock of fresh farm meat quickly drying up, many in the industry are bracing for layoffs, closures, and complete collapse.
Hala Marcos, managing director of Maison Marcos, one of the largest pork-product manufacturers in Egypt, believes that the diminishing supply of meat will grind sales to a halt.
“This decision [to cull pigs] will ruin our business. It will be total shutdown in no time,” she said.
Maison Marcos operates in Cairo, employing over 80 workers at four retail outlets, one processing factory and a pig farm. Marcos said the decision to begin layoffs could be made within days.
“We don’t know how to pay our payroll, how to settle our debts. It’s complete paralysis,” Marcos said. “This is what will happen to the whole industry.”
Throughout Egypt, similar concerns are growing at the nation’s other pork-producing companies.
Alexandria-based Monoco produces ham, sausages, bacon, and mortadella for sale at retails outlets throughout Egypt. Owners Franko and Rolando Monoco are resolved that their 70-year-old family business will soon fold.
“Within one month, we will have to close. We have no choice,” Rolando Monoco said. “Of course we’re not happy, but what can we do?”
Already, retail sales of existing pork supplies are declining. Ramses, a manufacturer and retailer with over 100 employees, suffered a 98 percent decline in pork sales over the past week.
Owners believe some clients have been scared away by misinformation about how the H1N1 virus is passed.
“My problem is that there are no customers,” said Gerges Yousef Boles, owner and manager of Ramses. “Price deduction won’t make any difference,” he continued. “When you think that the meat has the virus, you won’t buy it even if it’s free.”
Last week, the World Health Organization and others quickly condemned Egypt’s decision to slaughter as premature, with scientific reports shedding light on the fact that H1N1 is more likely to be passed from human to human, not through contact with pigs.
Governments and pork industries around the world have since scrambled to change that perception, urging media to rename the commonly known swine flu as “Mexican flu” or “North American influenza”.
In Egypt, the pork industry is relying mainly on word-of-mouth to combat any negative stigma on the meat. As early as last week, butchers and retailers in Cairo’s Shubra district had posted statements in storefronts, urging customers to study the facts before making a decision not to buy pork meat.
To date, no outbreaks of the H1N1 virus have been reported in Egypt.
“We would gladly slaughter our herds if they presented a real threat to human health,” Marcos said. “But if the WHO and others are saying that there is no threat to humans, what’s the idea behind taking such drastic actions? It’s just confusing to us,” she continued.
Egypt’s pork industry is relatively small, catering exclusively to expatriates, tourists, and the country’s Coptic Christian community — roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s population. Some estimates place the total number of official slaughters for pork companies at 100,000 pieces per year in Cairo and Alexandria.
But producers believe the entire population of Egypt will be affected if the pork industry vanishes.
“Without pork, Egypt’s Christians will be buying more beef, chicken and fish. This greater demand will cause a rise in prices of the other meat products,’’ Boles said.
Hala Marcos believes the negative consequences of the culling would be felt across hundreds of families throughout Egypt.
“Our workers are specialized in this field. Where else will they work? Many of them will be out on the streets,” said Marcos.
At the company pig farm on the outskirts of Cairo, workers in the dusty pigsties echoed Marcos’ fear.
“We are scared because we have nowhere else to earn our living from. We don’t have anything else to do,” said Nadi Labib.
Labib, a Coptic Christian from Cairo, has been working on pig farms his whole life. Labib worries that his family of five will be evicted if he loses his income.
“My kids will be homeless and unsheltered. But there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said. “I can only rely on God to help me through it.”
–Additional reporting by Mohamed Effat