Cairo, Egypt (Al Sabah Newspaper) –It is impossible to imagine life of any Egyptian without Fava beans, known as “Foul”. It is the common denominator between the old and young, the rich in their mansions and the poor in their ‘holes’, those living in advantaged governorates and those in the all but forgotten parts of the country.
This four-month investigation that took us through four governorates and 12 bean warehouses reveals that the most popular dish in Egypt is in fact carcinogenic.
Abdel Sattar – the custodian of the building in which I live– eats beans three times a day as if it were medically prescribed. However, his ‘medicine’ contains poison. With severe stomach pain, he ends up at the nearest hospital.
The doctor asks him: “What did you eat today?”
“Foul, Doctor.” he replies.
Saddened, the doctor says that people are without scruples. Try as he may, however, he cannot persuade Abdel Sattar that the street vendors use harmful additives to prepare the Foul and that he himself oversaw many cases similar to Abdul Sattar’s.
The doctor does not succeed.
Foul form part of the conviction of Abdel Sattar and his likes. Their connection to Foul remains unchanged over hundreds of years
It is nine o’clock in the morning; people surround the handcart from all sides, every one of them ravenously eating the Foul, served with their usual condiments. One man carries his dish and bread to the side of the road to eat his breakfast away from the crowd. The yellowish-red colour of the Foul entices me to access the bean preparation room, or the storage area as the merchants call it, to unravel the mystery of the substances that are added to this popular dish; substances that threaten the health of Egyptians who actually need their health to resist other more dangerous diseases.
Immediately after noon prayers, the number of people dwindled and the vendor started to pack up his things and get ready to leave.
I followed him until we reached a random area in Meit Aqaba called Dayr Al Nahiya. He entered one of the houses with his small handcart. Minutes later, he came out and headed towards the spice store next door.
I went up to him and introduced myself as a photographer working on a handicraft exhibition. I asked if I could shadow him for a whole day so as to photograph the different stages of preparation, from the beginning of the working day until the Foul reaches the consumer. I offered to pay him for the privilege.
He agreed enthusiastically and smiled, asking: “How much will you be paying?”
After some bargaining, we agreed on 100 Egyptian Pounds (EGP) in return for spending the entire day with him.
We agreed that I would return with my camera at 1 pm the following day, when it all begins. I gave him half the amount as a down payment.
I arrived the next day at noon. It was a small storage area in the basement of one of the rundown houses: two rooms filled with filth and rubble, spider webs living on the dirty cement walls; dishes, oil, spoons and bottles of sesame seed oil and garbage strewn all over the floor. There were cats everywhere, walking over the cooking utensils. He had thrown the tomatoes and onions into open cages, flies and insects covering their naked roofs. Next to these mountains of garbage stood the Foul handcart, parked there after a long hard day’s work, while a big stove connected to three small gas pipes sat in the opposite room, the old cooking pot sitting on top, the smell of the Fava beans indistinguishable from the smell of rot that seemed to have been trapped in the room for ages, for there was not a single window to allow any ventilation. There were protrusions in the walls where he had stacked sacks of rice, lentils and Fava beans as well as an unknown yellow substance and another red one. I got the strange feeling that those colorants were somehow related to what was happening.
They had thrown the raw bean sacks on the floor, next to them a worn-out waterspout under which stood a bucket filled with beans soaked in water. I took tens of photos of the place and everything in it and after about an hour of mocking me and laughing at every photograph I took, they slowly became comfortable in my presence and started to work unreservedly while I took pictures.
I took care to follow all the stages of the bean preparation, starting with the cleaning of the bean pot after an entire day of work (some vendors wash the pots with water and soap while others settle for washing them with water only).
The workers open the sacks of beans, put them in a bucket filled with water and leave them for a few minutes until the filth rises to the top (some of them leave them there for five minutes while others settle for one minute and yet others don’t bother to wash them at all).
After this cleaning process, the beans are placed in the cooking pot and big quantities of water are added, covering half of the pot at least. Then the stove is lit and the pot is left there till the beans are cooked, which takes 12 to 14 hours on average.
Five hours later a bag of baking powder, or “powder” as the vendors call it, is added to cut down on the cooking time. The amount of powder that they add is estimated between 32 and 48 grams. It is composed of sodium bicarbonate, sodium pyrophosphate and starch used by homemakers for cooking.
Another hour later the rice, lentils, chickpeas and beans – soaked overnight – are added, the quantities dictated by each vendor’s ‘conscience’ as one of them confirmed. This particular place uses 2kgs of rice, half a kilogram each of lentils and soaked beans for each cooking pot, in contravention of the recommended amounts which are 1kg of rice, 1kg of lentils and half a kilogram each of chickpeas and soaked beans for each cooking pot.
It takes another eight hours for the beans to be cooked and at around 3 am it is ready to be sold. This starts immediately after morning prayers and continues until noon prayers. Naturally, the bean vendors make use of the remaining 8 hours to get some rest.
There was no reason for me to stick around while they slept so I made my excuses on the understanding that I would return at around 3 am in the morning to resume my work.
Why didn’t they use the yellow and red substances during the preparation phase when they had used all of the other available foodstuffs?
The question haunted me until I arrived back at the place at 2.30 am. Everybody was getting ready for the final phase: to turn off the stove and mix the beans in the cooking pot. I caught a glimpse of one of them emptying the contents of the bags of yellow and red substances into the two cooking pots. There were around 250 grams of the yellow and red substances divided between the two cooking pots. I asked him: “What are those coloured substances?” Without looking up at me he answered: “The yellow one is curcumin and the red one is an industrial colorant to make the beans look good.”
I became skeptical of these coloured substances, especially after I saw the colour of the beans change from black to yellowish-red. I asked if I could take what was left over in the bags. At first the guy refused and said: “You can buy them from the spice shop next door”. But I insisted and he finally agreed to give me what was left in the bag, without asking why. I paid him the rest of the amount we had agreed on the day before and I left while they were tying a piece of cloth around the top of the cooking pots to stop the beans from spilling when the handcart moved. They headed out towards the market at the call to dawn prayers of a new day carrying breakfast to only “God knows” how many people,
It was natural for me to think of barging into other warehouses to make sure that this was not the behaviour of one individual and I used the same ploy – plus a few others – to gain access to 11 other such places in Geeza, Cairo, Alexandria and Qalyubia. I sometimes posed as a photographer, at others a researcher, merchant and even a coffee shop owner wanting to serve up the pre-dawn meal (suhoor) during the month of Ramadan and seeking reassurance about the correctness of the preparation of the beans. Sometimes, I simply used my own contacts to access certain ‘storage areas’ in Alexandria and Qalyubia.
In the process, I met some who to start with do not know the meaning of cleanliness. Some who sold leftover beans from the day before and very few ‘storage areas’ that were concerned with the cleanliness of their place or their product or had any scruples about what they were serving their clients.
What worried me even more was that I found out that 80% of these storage areas used the same unknown substance to colour and cook the beans. In fact, I found only one in Geeza and two others in Qalyubia who didn’t.
I asked those who refused to add the colourings why they did not. Ahmad Ali, the owner of one bean store in Geeza, put aside any ambiguity in this regard with the following answer: “We use local beans which do not need any additives while others use the smaller English beans, which are black and need dyes to turn them into the reddish yellow colour that people can accept. We hear that the colorants are harmful and that some merchants use them to make more profit, seeing that the price of local beans is double the price of the English ones.
Every time I used to visit a ‘storage area’ that uses these colorants, I would make an effort to take away a small amount of both the yellow and the red substances that they used. I checked and found that the substances collected from all eight places were all the same: they had the same smell, the same colour tone and taste. However, and in order to make sure I was not wrong, I went to the source of the substances: the spice shop.
“These are all the same, Sir. This one is sunset yellow and this is red colorant”, was the response of the spice shop owner who confirmed that he sells these colorants and that bean vendors always buy them to colour their beans. He assured us that this was both accepted and permitted, that those colorants are healthy and that there is no harm in using them. He went on to say: “Food Supply inspectors pass by our stores, they see them and they say nothing to us about it”. Whenever I asked for the colorants at any spice shop, I was given the very same substances and was also told that they are not harmful to humans.
I asked them all about the source of these substances. Some said they were imported. Others said that they came from within the country but did not cite the source and some refused to answer. Only one answered my question straight forwardly, and in the process revealed yet another catastrophe: “We get them from the fabric dye companies”.
I wrapped up the first stage of my research with these unknown substances used in the food of the ‘ghalaba’ – the poor and helpless of Egypt.
From there, I jumped to the second and more important stage, which would reveal the nature of these colorants. I headed towards the central laboratories of the Ministry of Health on Sheikh Rihan Street, entered the dyes and colorants laboratory on the ground floor and asked for the samples to be analysed. The administration accepted to analyse them, albeit at my own personal responsibility and for a fee to be paid at the end of the process, which would take two weeks.
Twenty days later I headed back to the laboratories to pick up the report and get the results of the analysis. This is when I discovered the magnitude of the catastrophe which the Egyptian people face in their best known and most popular dish. The report states:
Sample number 1: the yellow mix contains a natural colour permitted for use according to the Colorants Decree and Decision 411 of the year 1997, the chemical code of which is (e100).
Sample number 2: the red mix is unfit for human consumption according to law number 10 of 1966 for the use of dyes and colorants ruled as unfit for use in Decree and Decision 411 of the year 1997. The mix contains four different dyes: (e127), (Sudan I), (orange dye) and (yellow dye).
Decision number 411 of 1997 is a ministerial decision governing colorants that may be added to foodstuffs. The decision identifies these colorants through the attached table which lists their symbols. If the relevant authorities find that any of these colorants are harmful to human beings, that colorant is immediately removed from the table.
Doctor A. A. of the Central Laboratories confirmed that the yellow dye, i.e. (e100), is known as ‘kurkum’ – curcumin – and its use is permissible in foodstuffs. The red substance, he said, is a mix of different dyes, one of which carries the chemical code (e127). This industrial colorant is banned except in very limited amounts and in the narrowest of uses because it causes several diseases. The other colorants are so harmful that they were not even listed in the table, especially (Sudan I) which is not authorised for use in foods and was taken off the ‘authorised colorants list’ decades ago. The colorant is controversial outside Egypt due to the grave harm it causes to humans and because its proper use is as a dye in fabrics.
The officials in the laboratory wanted to keep some of the dye sample of the red colorant because they had never seen anything of the like. I agreed albeit with great astonishment because while this substance is sold in spice shops and is used by bean vendors all over Egypt, the Ministry of Health – which has a food monitoring agency – was not even aware of its existence.
To get to know the scientific make up of these colorants, what they contain and the risk to health that they pose, we took the report to Professor Maher Hilmi Hilal, a dye chemistry professor at the Faculty of Science at Helwan University. He commented that “this is extremely dangerous as there are two very hazardous dyes in the red colorant mix: ‘e127’ and ‘Sudan I’. These are two industrial colorants which some add to foodstuffs to give them a deep attractive colour to attract consumers. The first substance is ‘Erythrosine’ or ‘red 3’ known in the European Union by the symbol ‘e127’. Its scientific name is (2′ 4′ 5′ 7′- tetra bromofluorescein) which is an organic ‘aromatic’ compound from the ‘xanthine’ dyes family and is used to colour sweets, jello, juices, chocolate, ice cream, fruit preserves, ketchup and biscuits. It is also used in printer ink, in diagnoses processes where coloured dye is used in imaging and as a catalytic agent in photographic films. Another use is in manufacturing the famous mouthwash “Oraldine” where it causes allergies and swelling of the skin.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Health Organisation (WHO) conducted research on this substance revealing that the permitted limit for this substance is between ‘0.0 to 0.1 mg’ per kg of human body weight per day.
A simple calculation will thus show the imminent danger to the lives of Egyptians posed by a dish of beans. The vendor adds around 50 grams of the substance to one cooking pot which makes 50 bean dishes. Every dish thus contains 1 gram of the substance, i.e. 1000 mgs. Even if we assume that the person eating this dish weighs 100kgs, then she/he would be ingesting 10mg daily per kg of body weight which is 100 times the maximum limit allowed by these two world organisations.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued warnings regarding this substance because of its link to cancer, especially thyroid cancer. It also affects DNA, causes asthma and impacts psychological and neurological conditions in children.
The other ‘catastrophe’ that Dr. Maher talks about is (Sudan 1). He said: “It is not the country of Sudan that is intended here. In fact, the Sudan objected to the name and asked for it to be changed because of the terrible and dangerous risks it poses to human lives. The scientific name for this substance is (Phenylazo) or (Naphthol) and it is found in the form of a powder that is orange-red in colour. It belongs to the L-aminofamily of dyes which can be broken down under oxidising conditions to give aromatic amino acids which are considered to be carcinogenic substances. The use of this substance is prohibited in most countries like Britain, Hong Kong, the United States of America, Australia, Canada, China and the countries of the European Union.
The WHO and FAO had ruled this dye unsafe for colouring foodstuffs back in 1973 because of its highly poisonous content.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) confirmed that the substance contaminates foods and determined that its use in food products is illegal.
In 1975, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – a branch of the WHO – conducted research that shows the effect of the substance on mice. The dye causes cancer in general, especially liver and bladder cancer. It also has a devastating effect on human genes. ‘Al Sabah’ was able to obtain a copy of this report.
We went to Dr. Yusri Hussein, the director of the Central Administration for Environmental Affairs which houses the Food Monitoring Administration. He surprised us at first with his knowledge of the issue when he said: “You mean the vendors who colour Fava beans with a red dye?”
Dr. Yusri stated that he is aware of what goes on and that his agencies try to take counter measures but he is up against some big difficulties which include the fact that “vendors are always on the move, with no fixed place of residence and this makes it very hard to monitor them. The Food Monitoring Administration’s role is confined to issuing health certificates to street cart vendors to ensure that they are free of disease and to get samples of the foodstuffs they sell to ensure that these are healthy. When a sample fails the test, we go back to see the vendor from whom we got it only to find out that he is no longer in the same place even if it is only a few hours later. “So what do we do?” he asked. “We always campaign, together with the Ministry of Supply, to monitor the market as a whole so there are no shortcomings on our part.”
First Inspector in the Food Monitoring Administration, Dr. Salah Abdel Wahad, asked us who had run the tests for us?. We showed him a summary of the results obtained from the Ministry of Health laboratories. At first he contested the effects of (Sudan I) and (E127) and insisted that (Sudan I) appears in the tables of colorants licensed in Egypt. When we obtained a copy of the tables in his presence, we did not find this substance listed, meaning that it is banned in Egypt.
Dr. Salah responded by saying: “Our role as a food monitoring agency is to instigate legal proceedings against violators. So when we monitor a violation, we write out a report and charge the vendor in question with a misdemeanour. If he is found, he is arrested but if he is not, we can do no more than write out a ticket for the violation and the relevant law enforcement authorities try to trace his movements”. The sentence for this offence varies from one to 25 years in prison and a fine of 10,000 Egyptian pounds. “We have directorates in all the governorates and each directorate has a food bureau in charge of monitoring its own geographic area”. He added: “a general inspector works there with a team of inspectors and he is in charge of each and every food item that is put on the market as well as all the production plants and warehouses in that governorate, with a total of 3000 inspectors working in the Republic as a whole”.
Dr. Salah stated that controlling such an issue is extremely difficult “just like the drug trade” which exists, even though it is prohibited, and will not disappear. He adds: “It is not in our power to stop the spice shops from selling these colorants because they are approved for other purposes. I wish to state in closing, however, that the directorates in general do their jobs and fulfil their duties.
Merchants go for two types of beans. The first is imported English beans which are small, thinner and of lower quality than the locally produced beans. The price of one kilogram is 4 Egyptian pounds (EGP). But because they are black, they need artificial colorants to change them to yellow or red. The second is local beans which do not need any colorants. They are of medium and uniform size, bigger than the imported beans, and their colour is naturally dark red leaning towards a brownish colour. They are relatively expensive, costing 10 to 12 EGP per kg, and they are therefore used by very few vendors as well as the bigger, well known restaurants that cater the beans. The bean vendors have to put up the price of their dishes and sandwiches to cover the cost of the best beans which are free of colorants. The cost of a Fava bean dish is between 2.5 and 3 EGP while a sandwich costs between 1.5 to 2 EGP.
On the other hand, the coloured bean vendors sell the beans dish at 1.5 to 2 EGP and the sandwich between 75 piasters to 1 EGP.
You need to pay attention to the size of the beans, their colour and price in order to differentiate between naturally coloured beans and dyed ones. It is of course preferable that you buy your meal from well known and popular places as they use local beans and are continuously monitored by the authorities.
The “English bean” is a type of bean produced abroad as food for horses is called ‘horse beans’. Egyptian beans are called ‘Fava beans’. The English bean is small in size; with the weight of 100 beans not exceeding 40 grams. In comparison, the Egyptian bean seeds are bigger. The weight of 100 beans ranges between 65 to 80 grams. The percentage of carbohydrates is also higher, reaching 55% for each bean. They are chosen carefully and are tested for quality and flavour before they are put on the market.
The director of the Legumes Division of the Agricultural Research Centre confirms that crops imported from Europe may be unfit for human consumption because the crops are sometimes genetically modified. But he also states that the responsibility for determining their validity lies with the “State Agricultural Quarantine and the Importers Society”. If the crops are found to have been genetically modified, they may lead to dangerous diseases.
The whole world complains about genetically modified types of bean. Some countries do not allow them for human consumption, exporting them to developing countries instead. The local Egyptian crops are never genetically altered, the varieties are natural and the safety of these crops is the responsibility of the “Agricultural Research Centre”.
Imported beans are cheaper because they are not natural, unlike locally grown beans which are more expensive. This is the reason for the difference in price, the local beans selling at double the price of the imported ones.
Two years ago, the price of an “Irdib” of beans — a traditional unit of measurement which comes to 155 kg’s, amounted to 1100 EGP compared to 800 EGP last year. The price changes according to traded prices on the world market.
The even bigger catastrophe is that when it is time to harvest the local beans, the importers place large quantities of imported beans on the market, driving the prices down and making it all but impossible for Egyptians to buy locally grown beans. This affects the economy as a whole but the state does not take any measures against this.
We went to the Agricultural Research Centre – Egypt’s foremost agricultural agency. We met with Dr. Mahmoud Abdel Muhsin, director of the Legume Crops Division, to discuss his vision on how to find a way out of this crisis. He said: “We must increase the size of agricultural land used for growing beans, the size of land used for farming as a whole, and we have to farm new urban land especially in the Sinai, both South and North, as well as East of Al-Oyounat and Toshka. We must expand the farming of soil-enriching legumes, as they stabilize the nitrogen in the soil through the bacteria in the nodules of the roots of legumes, thereby improving the quality of the soil. This provides 25 more units of nitrogen to the crops that are farmed in that soil after the legumes are farmed. This also benefits the trees, giving us a higher single crop return and making it more profitable for the farmers to grow beans. This in turn would increase the quantity of locally grown beans on the market thus lowering their price and cancelling the need for imported beans.
“In terms of self sufficiency, we now produce only about 28%of our annual need of beans whereas we used to produce 100% between the years 1997 and 2000. We now import beans despite the fact that we are an agricultural country. The reason for this regression is that the old regime refused to expand the farming of essential basic crops and we consequently turned to importing them”.
Dr. Yusri Hussein from the Food Safety Commission assures us that the monitoring of such issues will not be activated efficiently until all the different monitoring authorities – which are currently divided across 5 ministries – are brought together to form one Commission on Food Safety. The staff would be seconded to the Commission from the relevant ministries – Trade and Supply, Health and the Interior, to monitor all kinds of foodstuffs that are produced, starting in the fields and ending on our dining tables.