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Hormone-rich meat still reaches Egyptian tables

An Egyptian boy stands next to a cattle at a farm in Egypt on 23 March 2021 [GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP via Getty Images]
An Egyptian boy at a cattle farm in Egypt on 23 March 2021 [GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP via Getty Images]

At Damo Farm in Al-Fayoum Governorate to the south of Cairo, calves weigh 550 kilograms each, and yet just six months ago they entered the farm weighing between 150 and 200 kilograms. This phenomenal growth is due to the fact that they have been injected with a "growth-stimulating" substance.

This drug shares an active substance with a number of veterinary preparations which, branding aside, are all known as "growth-stimulating hormones" in the veterinary medicine market and among livestock farmers.

What happens at Damo Farm is repeated in livestock farms, small farms and farmers' sheds across Egypt. Over the course of a year, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) monitored the injection of calves with such products in three governorates — Al-Fayoum, Al-Menofia and Al-Qalyubia — and documented farmers and breeders using veterinary preparations randomly and regularly, some of which contain the internationally-banned hormone Boldenone (according to data posted on samples of unknown origin that are being circulated among farmers and breeders), which violates the standard specifications and ministerial decrees covering such matters. Since these substances are difficult to detect in slaughterhouses with poor testing equipment, the meat from calves injected with such growth hormones poses a threat to the health of consumers.

The owner of Damo Farm, Ibrahim Hassan, is over 65 years old and justified his use of hormones by citing their unrestricted availability. "If they were prohibited, they would be difficult to sell, trade, import from abroad or manufacture domestically," he said. He was happy to allow us to watch the injection process.

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Two farm workers injected the calves with a product bearing the trademark "Boldegan" on the pack, which also includes the instructions for its use. The preparation is sold for EGP 400-500 ($22-27) by local companies, veterinary drug centres and local gyms. A 50-millilitre bottle is usually enough for five calves at 10 millilitres per animal.

Bolden+ is another brand name for the same effective substance, Boldenone, and is used by Mohammad Khaled, a farmer who owns three calves in a village in the Ashmoun Centre in Al-Menofia. "My cousin asked me for two calves for his wedding party, which is due in two months, and I want to give him two calves full of meat," he told us. He injected his calves with the substance. "Before the treatment, a calf has a weak appetite, but afterward its consumption of food starts to increase." A farmer may inject a calf three times before selling it.

The use of hormones to fatten calves is a crime in Egypt, according to the head of the Directorate of Veterinary Medicine in Cairo, Dr Sabri Zeinhom. A farmer who does it is committing fraud which is a crime. Slaughtering calves is not authorised unless it is proven that they have not been treated with hormones or until the animal's body gets rid of their residues.

International ban

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned Boldenone in meat, poultry and seafood since January 2015. Thirty-four years before that, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) banned the use of growth-stimulating hormones to fatten farm animals in EU member states. The EU decision, No. 602/81, detailed the risks to human health posed by hormone residues in beef and meat products, as shown by the findings of studies carried out by the Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Relating to Public Health (SCVPH) in late July 1981.

This independent scientific advisory body concluded in 19991 – based on the findings of 17 empirical studies – that growth hormones caused an increase in the rate of chronic diseases in humans, especially sexual and immune illnesses. It found that one of these hormones is a carcinogenic substance that increases the chances of developing breast cancer as a result of consuming hormone-rich meats.

However, the hormones remain in the meat even if the breeder abides by the withdrawal period, said Nabil Yassin, the former head of the Department of Food Health Control at Cairo University. These residues are dangerous as they cause many diseases, mainly hormone disorders and cancers, he added, citing international scientific studies and research.

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The effective substance in Boldenone has a negative effect on the kidneys, the liver and blood in calves, according to a study prepared by Ahmad Neamat-Allah, a researcher in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Zagazig University.2

According to the study, a big increase in haemoglobin and packed cell volume in blood tests leads to an increase in blood activity, causing a defect in its natural characteristics; this makes the body more susceptible to blood and heart diseases. According to Yassin, a decrease in leukocytes, which are a type of white blood cells, increases the risk of infection, especially when eating large amounts of hormone-rich meat for a long time.

Domestically, if there is a change in the colour, taste or smell of meat due to a disease or nutritional condition, the carcass should be destroyed, in accordance with Egypt's Ministerial Decree No. 517 of 1986. Studies have shown a change in the essential qualities of meat due to hormone injections. "The use of hormones in raising cattle makes domestic meat less safe than imported meat," insisted Yassin.

Egypt's hormone market

Growth-stimulating hormones are banned totally from circulation or use in Egypt, explained Dr Hisham Abdel-Hasib, the Director of Guidance at the Veterinary Services Authority. This ban has been in place since 2015 in line with the international ban. While some countries still allow the use of such hormones, Egypt is not one of them.

However, the picture is very different in some veterinary medicine and vaccine sale centres, as well as in the products of companies making veterinary medicine and fodder additives. The sale of such products takes place through representatives or advertisements on bogus social media pages. Our investigation demonstrated that the substances are used on Egyptian farms. The most prominent of these products is Boldegan, which is used by most farms that use growth hormones in their cattle; Bolden+ ranks second. Many other brands are advertised for sale on social media.

"The banned hormones are very expensive, costing EGP 900 to 1000 ($60 to 70) per injection," said Abdel-Hasib by way of explaining his authority's failure to register any violations during their inspections. Such hormones are not registered as available in the Egyptian market, he argued, so if they were found, they must have been smuggled in or adulterated. "If someone injects an animal with a dose costing EGP 1,000, how much profit will they expect to make?"

In order to trace the source of the commonly-used Boldegan, we examined the data available on the packaging of the product. This indicates that it originates locally and has not been licensed by any entity within Egypt. The packaging referred to two different companies without making it clear which one produces the growth hormones or which one is distributing them.

We decided to dig deeper, despite the denial by the manager of Plexopharm that his company produces the hormone. "It is not available in the company," he insisted, "and I do not know who is distributing it."

A similar response was forthcoming from an official at the second company, Rexall Pharma Group. He claimed that the company had spotted "this product in the market, and we took legal action against it." The same official confirmed, however, that both companies are owned by the same person.

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This prompted us to search for one of the representatives distributing this hormone through a veterinarian who owns a veterinary drug centre. We placed an order for a large quantity of the hormone on condition that we were shown proof of its source and quality as listed on the packaging. To our surprise, the representative produced an invoice (No. 9136) authorising the dispatch of the goods from Rexall Pharma Group, including the required quantity and price. This was proof that the substance originated from the same company whose owner and director had denied any connection to the hormones in circulation.

We then tried to analyse three packages of Boldegan, Bolden+ and Probold at four specialist government laboratories at the ministries of agriculture and health. Two of the labs claimed that they were unable to analyse these drugs due to the lack of benchmarking materials. No response was received from the other two entities by the time this investigation was published.

According to Dr Mohammad Abdullah, the Middle East regional director of Tornel, a Mexican hormone producer, the Aquagen available in Egypt is adulterated at underground factories in "Bir El Selm". He added: "Since 2016, we have not stocked this product. The last shipment that entered Egypt was in 2011, after which we stopped importing it when the Ministry of Health refused to renew the import licence for the product because it included Boldenone."

Inspection campaigns, however, are continuing at the outlets selling these banned products, said Abdel-Hasib. He claimed that in the past six months the authority found 587 violating entities, and those violations included medicines of unknown origin, expired products or companies operating without a licence, which led to their immediate closure.

Poorly equipped slaughterhouses

The law in Egypt dictates the need to inspect calves, cows and all livestock prior to slaughter at 464 slaughterhouses nationwide. The purpose of this is to check that the animals meet government health standards.

In accordance with Ministerial Decree No. 517 of 1986, an animal should not be slaughtered if it contains traces of medicines or hormones. To find out how the law is applied and how the examination process takes place, we visited the largest and most up to date slaughterhouse in the country. We examined the procedures applied during the Eid Al-Adha season (when livestock slaughtering peaks in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world). The slaughterhouse director estimated that in July 2019, around 55,000 animals were slaughtered.

A few metres away from the main gate of the slaughterhouse in Al-Basateen neighbourhood, the director of the Department of Laboratories at the so-called Automated Slaughterhouse, Iman Sabri, was examining samples sent by "[slaughter] hall vets" who were assigned to inspect calves and cows as they were being led to slaughter. "This lab lacks the scientific tools to detect hormones found in animal meat," said Sabri. "But the research centres in Al-Dokki neighbourhood and the one at the Ministry of Health are the most qualified to detect hormones in general."

However, calves treated with hormones can be detected by the naked eye judging by their general shape. "If the calf's muscles are detailed like those of bodybuilders, we suspect that they have been injected with hormones," said Mustafa Abdel-Sami', the Director of the Automated Slaughterhouse.

It is clear from our investigation that meat from animals which have been injected with banned hormones still reaches Egyptian dining tables. Standard specifications and ministerial decrees are clearly being ignored and violated.

Some names have been changed to protect the identity of the people involved who spoke to investigators.

[1] Opinion of the Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Relating to Public Health: Assessment of Potential Risks to Human Health from Hormone Residues in Bovine Meat and Meat Products, European Commission, 30 April, 1999. And Opinion of the Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Relating to Public Health on Review of previous SCVPH opinions of 30 April 1999 and 3 May 2000 on the potential risks to human health from hormone residues in bovine meat and meat products. European Commission, adopted on 10 April 2002.

[2] Effect of Boldenone Undecyclenate on Haematological and Biochemical Parameters in Veal Calves, Ahmed N. F. Neamat-Allah, Department of Clinical Pathology, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Zagazig University, Egypt, in Global Veterinaria 13(6): 1092-1096, 2014 ISSN 1992-6197

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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