Meals under threat by the ban on live poultry

1 kg boneless chicken: LE80

1 kg brown chicken: LE35

1 kg white chicken: LE27.5

1 kg chicken carcasses: LE10

1 kg chicken feet: LE2

The prices of various chicken products are displayed on a chalkboard at the entrance of a live poultry shop in the Cairo working class district of Sayeda Zeinab. The wide range of prices attests to the economic disparity of the shop’s customers — some able to afford whole chickens, while others compelled to buy leftover parts at a fraction of the cost.

“Some people come to buy chicken feet and carcasses as food for dogs, but, here in Sayeda Zeinab, we sell them for people to eat,” says Rady, the owner of a poultry shop, who is busy carving up slaughtered chickens into various parts and dividing them onto plastic plates underneath the table. “There are a lot of poor people here who buy them. I wonder, will the government sell frozen chicken feet or will they deprive people of them?”

Ever since the government announced in October that it would take steps to implement a law banning the sale of live poultry in markets, questions have swirled around the fate of poor and working class Egyptian families, who increasingly can only afford leftover chicken parts — like the carcass, feet and wings — as one source of protein in their meals.

Issued more than nine years ago, Law 70/2009 banned the trade of live poultry as a way of curbing the spread of bird flu. The law was implemented for around two years until it was unofficially suspended in 2011, as the January 25 uprising broke out. According to the law, slaughter should be confined to licensed slaughterhouses and only frozen poultry can be sold in markets. Parts like carcasses and feet would no longer be available for sale.

“Chicken slaughter looks bad. Frozen chicken looks sophisticated. So they go slaughter the poor,” a taxi driver says while we inch through a traffic jam. He complains about the price of a kilogram of boneless chicken that now ranges from LE80 to LE100.

The government announced this week that it will begin implementing the law in April in the governorates of Cairo and Giza, and the ministries of agriculture, trade and industry, health, local development and supply are coordinating to develop mechanisms of enforcement.

Government officials have offered a number of justifications for their decision to implement the law now, including health concerns, the environment and the economy.

Deputy Minister of Agriculture for Livestock, Fisheries and Poultry Affairs Mona Mehrez said in October that the law aims to prevent the spread of diseases and improve the poultry industry. She later added that the law benefits commercial traders as well as small poultry farmers and consumers, and strives to prevent monopolistic practices, balance prices and provide “healthy protein” for all citizens.

Agriculture Minister Ezz Eddin Abu Steit said on October 22 that “selling poultry packaged in bags is a civilized way to preserve the environment,” adding that that the ministry is focusing on raising awareness among citizens and retailers of the risks associated with the trade, slaughter and sale of live birds outside slaughter houses.

Meanwhile, the head of the Egyptian Poultry Association, Nabil Darwish, previously told Mada Masr that the law will eliminate viral diseases, which would in turn protect the industry from losses estimated at 30-50 percent of poultry production.

Yet critics say the government initiative neglects the needs of poor Egyptian households. In recent years, the demand for chicken carcasses and other leftover parts has only increased as food prices have soared, leaving some segments of Egyptian society no longer able to afford whole chickens or choice sections like the breast and legs.

Om Mahmoud, a widower in her 50s who receives a monthly pension of LE600, relies on the parts of the chicken that are usually discarded — including the feet, head and carcass — for food.

“Leftover chicken parts used to disgust me at first, but I eat them now,” Om Mahmoud tells me. “Two years ago, we could buy three chickens for LE100, now the same price can barely get you one chicken. Imagine when our only option is to buy frozen chicken for LE70 or more. And this price will increase just like everything else. We won’t get to taste chicken at all.”

In lower-income districts, like Cairo’s Sayeda Zeinab and Munira, there are dozens of stores selling live poultry. Residents there cannot afford to meet their protein needs, even when they resort to buying subsidized food products sold out of trucks affiliated with the Armed Forces or the interior and agricultural ministries.

“We were told that we don’t look good when we slaughter chicken in the streets, and they want us to look chic like people in Europe and the US. They want us to starve to death while being chic,” Om Mahmoud says.

She adds that she doesn’t buy into the justifications by government officials for only offering frozen chicken to consumers. “No, frozen chicken is not better. It stays in ice until the meat is sucked out of it and it makes it smell bad. What’s good about it? Slaughtered chicken are more blessed and they include the liver, and other parts.”

Various types of domestic fowl supplied from farms are usually on offer in live poultry stores. White chicken is the cheapest option compared to brown chicken, duck, turkey and pigeon. Aside from farmed chicken, there is also the home-raised variety that is often sold by the people who raise them. The price of home-raised chicken varies from one seller to another, but it is usually the priciest option.

The availability of chicken carcasses and other leftover parts ironically depends on the demand for the most expensive chicken product — boneless chicken. When a chicken is deboned, the butcher can set aside the carcass and other parts. If the demand for boneless chicken decreases due to rising prices, so too will the availability of leftover chicken parts.

At times, poor families are so desperate for the leftover chicken parts that they go to poultry stores and book in advance.

“A woman comes and tells me to reserve one or two kilograms of chicken carcasses and bones for her in order to make sure they do not run out,” says Rady. “Honestly, customers for these leftover chicken parts have increased in number. Those who used to buy a chicken per month, now buy the leftovers twice a month instead.”

Karoline Kamel 

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