The country’s government is yet to definitively end its internal dispute about how rigorously to apply standards for ergot fungus infections in wheat shipments, despite the removal of the head of Egypt’s quarantine agency, Saad Moussa.
Moussa, citing a 2001 law, was thought to have been behind the zero-tolerance approach to ergot infections, which caused Egyptian authorities to refuse a number of wheat shipments – but his replacement, Ibrahim Imbabi, announced he would also turn back wheat shipments with any trace of ergot. In contrast, the agriculture ministry has said infection rates of up to 0.05% are acceptable, in line with a law passed in 2010.
Agriculture minister, Essam Fayed, said last week he was waiting for recommendations from a UN Food and Agriculture Organisation official on what level of ergot contamination is acceptable for Egypt in particular. Fayed said he did not know when the FAO official would make her recommendations.
Ergot cancer-murder scare
Along with the uncertainty in the wheat market – which has seen the number of bids for Egyptian tenders drop by more than half – the dispute is also causing some panic among Egypt’s consumers. Press reports suggested some people had seized on the ergot argument as evidence bread made with infected wheat could cause cancer – and so were boycotting bread.
Local media outlets have also been stoking the ergot-fear fire, with Bloomberg reporting the state-supported Al-Ahram news service carrying the headline “Head of Agriculture Quarantine Slaughtered by the Knife of Cancer-Causing Wheat Mafia” in relation to the ousting of Moussa (who remains alive, as far as can be determined).
Experts and officials have dismissed links between ergot and cancer – while the fungus is potentially toxic, health problems would only follow after heavy and prolonged exposure, at levels not feasible with normal bread consumption. Officials also denied the existence of any conspiracy around the ergot dispute.
While Egypt’s wheat imports have slowed because of the ergot issue, supply minister Khaled Hanafy said last week the country has enough stored wheat to last until early July. He also announced the agreement of a 240,000 tonne tender to buy wheat from France, Romania and Ukraine.
Food prices jump despite cap
Away from wheat, a recent devaluation of the Egyptian pound has caused prices of some food products to rise, despite a promise by Hanafy that prices would be capped. Daily News Egypt reported price rises on cooking oil of 10%, and rice up by around US$0.22 per kilo.
Hanafy said the supply ministry had imposed price caps on staple food products sold by government-affiliated vendors, which would prevent prices rising for consumers. But it remains unclear how effective this will be in Egypt’s often chaotic food market.