In Bab El Khadra, one of the most famous historic neighbourhoods of the medina of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, there is a butcher’s shop that sells horse and donkey meat. Tunisian and Moroccan customers come to buy this type of meat, which is subjected to strict health control of the Ministry of Health and the municipal police in Tunisia. Different social groups do not stop going to this shop to buy the meat it sells until the end of the day.
Hussain Shushan, one of the chief butchers in this shop, confirmed to Huff Post Arabi that he inherited this profession from grandfather to son, and that he specialised particularly in selling donkey and horse meat. His grandfather inherited this profession from the Maltese Community since 1963 that once lived in Tunisia and whose butchers were specialised in slaughtering this type of animals.
Shushan stressed that there is a high Tunisian demand on donkey and horse meat, from all the Tunisian Republic’s governorates, and even from outside it, and from the neighbouring countries such as Libya, Morocco and Algeria. Customers come to this shop on purpose to buy this type of meat and their derivatives of minced meat, sausages and salami. Some of them come following special recommendation from their doctors, especially those who suffer from anaemia and Iron-deficiency, and others used to buy this meat as a family tradition because of its health benefits and cheap prices, compared to sheep meat and beef.
Our interviewee confirmed that demand for this type of meat by Tunisians and other people from different nationalities has increased over the past few years, compared to the previous ones. However, he denounced the vicious campaign to discredit this sector by some intruders who slaughter donkeys in random slaughterhouses and sell them as cattle and calf meat while some of them are not even suitable for human consumption. He expressed at that time that he is not ashamed to tell the new customer that he sells donkey or horse meat and leave it up to him whether to buy it or not.
Huff Post Arabi has checked the slaughtered donkeys in this shop. They were stamped by the Healthcare Department, which means that they are slaughtered in legal slaughterhouses under the supervision of the Ministry of Health and the relevant municipal authorities. The meat for sale is presented in special refrigerators where there are signs that contain “donkey meat” and the prices, and they are publicly sold.
On the other side of the butcher shop, horse and donkey meat prices are detailed in a list, and others are intended to be consumed by pets, such as cats and dogs. This shop’s workers always make sure they divide meat into what is suitable for human consumption and for animal consumption. One kilogram of donkey meat is sold at 6 Tunisian dinars, equivalent to 2.5 dollars, while one kilogram of sheep and calf meat is sold at 25 Tunisian dinars, about 10 dollars.
Mrs. Raja. M, a doctor who lives in Al-Manar, confirms that she is one of this shop’s loyal customers. She also confirmed to Huff Post Arabi that her confidence in the butchers who work in this shop and in their compliance with the terms of healthy selling made her come to buy horse and donkey meat because of the health benefits that distinguish this type of animal meat from the rest of the highly consumed meat, as she put it.
Raja was surprised by those who dislike donkey and horse meat. She stated that “at least I buy donkey meat and I am aware of this. I could have bought it from somewhere else, however, thinking it was lamb meat. I could have been cheated on by the seller, which is widespread in other shops where donkey meat is sold to the customer as beef.”
Our speaker tells the story of her dead father who used to work in the health sector and suffer from anemia. The doctor advised him then to eat donkey and horse meat because of their health benefits, unlike lamb and beef. Gradually, her family became accustomed to the consumption of such meat. It was a matter of personal choice for them and not the mere price difference between donkey meat and lamb.
Licensed and Legal Sale
The authorities in Tunisia allow the slaughter and sale of donkeys and horses. They also allocate municipal slaughterhouses under health control. The head of Health and Environment Conservation Bureau affiliated to the Health Ministry in Tunisia, Dr. Mohamed al-Rabhi, told HuffPost Arabi that this type of meat is subject to the ministry’s strict control, and that there is no legal obstacle in the process of slaughter and sale, but the only problem lies in the existence of random slaughterhouses. Last week the authorities raided illegal slaughterhouses in Bab El Khadra and seized hundreds of kilograms of donkey meat which was not suitable for consumption. These were intended to be distributed to fast-food restaurants’ and served to the consumer as lamb or beef.
He stressed that the problem with meat sale in Tunisia is the deliberate fraud of sellers, and some shops concealing the nature of the meat, where donkey meat is sold and promoted to the consumer both in butchers’ shops or even in restaurants as lamb or beef.
Sana al-Weslati, veterinarian and a supervisor at the Organization for the Defense of Consumers, confirmed that donkey meat is highly demanded in Tunisia. She said to HuffPost Arabi that most of the derivatives of donkey meat are served with alcoholic drinks on weekends, holidays and family occasions. Some low-income Tunisian families are forced to resort to the consumption of such meat because of the insanely high prices of beef and lamb, as they can sometimes exceed 11 dollars per kilogram.
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Al-Weslati believes that the consumption of donkey meat is not harmful to humans, as long as they meet the conditions of healthy and proper slaughter in controlled slaughterhouses, under the supervision of specialized medical doctors. However, the illegal slaughter routes, where many sick and old donkeys are slaughtered provoke fear as it is dangerous to the Tunisian citizen’s health.
She also emphasized that the shops, which are intended to sell donkey meat, need to be fully dedicated to selling only this type and not beef or lamb, so as not to deceive the customer or trick him. The citizen will be aware that he had willingly bought donkey meat and not because it was fraud.
Mohamed al-Walhazi, General Secretary of the Municipal Police Syndicate in Tunisia, said in May, through Nessma private TV channel, that donkeys were being smuggled into Tunisia. He said that the number of slaughtered donkeys was presumably about two thousand donkeys per month, while their skins are exploited in the fashion and make-up industry and are exported to cosmetics companies abroad.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.