Inside “Damo” Farm in Al-Fayoum Governorate, south of Cairo, the weight of calves reached 550 kilograms each.
Six months before
these calves entered the farm with weights ranging between 150 and 200 kilograms, but their weights exceeded half a ton each after being injected with a “growth-stimulating” veterinary substance; which led to their weight doubling one and a half times over that period.
This drug shares with a number of veterinary preparations an active substance, and despite their different brands, the preparations are known as “growth-stimulating hormones” in the veterinary medicine market and among livestock farmers.
What happens inside “Damo” Farm in Al-Fayoum is repeated in other Egyptian villages and hamlets. Throughout a year, we monitored the operations of injecting calves with such products in three governorates – Al-Fayoum, Al-Menofia and Al-Qalyubia. The process takes place inside livestock farms, small farms and farmers’ sheds, and we documented the injection of calves by farmers and breeders with veterinary preparations randomly and regularly, some of which contain the internationally-banned hormone Boldenone*, which violates the standard specifications and ministerial decrees in this regard. Since these substances are difficult to detect by slaughterhouses due to poor testing equipment, the meat from those growth hormones injected calves goes to pose a threat to the health of consumers.
“Damo” Farm’s owner, Ibrahim Hassan**, over 65 years old, justifies his use of hormones by their unrestricted market availability. “If they were prohibited, they would be difficult to sell, trade, import from abroad or manufacture domestically,” he says, hence, allowing us to watch the injection process.
Two farm workers inject the calves with a product bearing the trademark “Boldegan” written on its package which also includes the instructions for its use. The preparation is sold for EGP 400-500 ($22-27) by sales persons from local distribution companies, at veterinary drug sales centers and at local gyms. A 50-millileter bottle of this product is usually enough to administer for five calves, that is 10 milliliters for each animal.
Bolden+, another commercial name for the same effective substance, Boldenone, is used by Mohammad Khaled,** a farmer who owns three calves in a village in the Ashmoun Center in Al-Menofia. The farmer, who is in his 30s, says, “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.” Hence, he injected his calves with the substance. “Before the treatment, a calf has a weak appetite, but afterward the calf 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 by law; 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 considered a crime according to the law. Slaughtering calves is not authorized unless it is proven that they have not been treated with hormones or until the animal’s body gets rid of their residues.
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 in fattening farm animals within 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 1999 – 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.
The hormones remain in the meat even if the breeder abides by the withdrawal period, says Nabil Yassin, 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 says, citing international scientific studies and research.
The effective substance in Boldenone has a negative effect on kidneys, the liver and blood in calves, according to a study prepared by Ahmad Nematullah, a researcher in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Al-Zagazig University.
According to the study, a big increase in HB and PCV in blood tests leads to an increase in the blood activity, causing a defect in its natural characteristics; this makes the body more susceptible to suffering blood and heart diseases. Nabil Yasin sees that 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 color, taste or smell of meat due to a disease or nutritional condition, the carcass should be destroyed, in accordance with 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,” says Yassin, the former head of the Department of Food Supervision at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.
Egypt’s Hormone Market
Growth-stimulating hormones are banned totally from circulation or use in Egypt, Dr. Hisham Abdel-Hasib, director of guidance at the Veterinary Services Authority, says that this ban has been effective since 2015 in line with the international ban. While some countries still allow the use of these hormones, Egypt is among the countries that ban it, Abdel-Hasib says.
However, things look different in some veterinary medicine and vaccine sale centers, as well as in veterinary medicine and fodder additives producing companies. The sale of such products are announced by representatives or are advertised on bogus pages on social media. But those substances are available at farms, as proven by our monitoring and documentation. The most prominent of these products is Boldegan, which is being used by most farms using growth hormones in their cattle, while Bolden+ ranks second. Many other labels are advertised for sale on social media.
“The banned hormones are very expensive, costing per injection EGP 900 to 1000 ($60 to 70),” argues Abdel Hasib, the head of guidance at the Veterinary Services Authority, to justify the authority’s failure to register any violations during their inspection tours. Those hormones are not registered as available in the Egyptian market, he says; if they were to be found, they must have been smuggled in or adulterated. Abdel Hasib also adds that “If someone injects an animal with a dose costing EGP 1,000 ($63.6), how much profit will they expect to make after that?”
Boldegan, a trademark of the hormone, Boldenone, is most commonly used among the farmers and breeders whom we met during the investigation that extended across three governorates. This prompted us to search for its original source and how it is traded and circulated in the markets.
First, we examined the data available on the packaging of the product, which indicates that it has a local origin that has not been licensed by any entity within Egypt. The packaging referred to two different companies without clearly pointing which one produces the growth hormones or the company that is distributing them.
So we decided to dig deeper, despite the denial of the manager of Plexopharm for veterinary medicines that his company produced the hormone, saying, “It is not available in the company, and I do not know who is distributing it.”
The same response came from an official at the second company, Rexall Pharma Group, claiming 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 were owned by the same person.
This prompted us to search for one of the representatives distributing this hormone through a veterinarian who owns a veterinary drug center. We placed an order for a large quantity of the hormone on condition of seeing proof that authenticates its source and quality as listed on the packaging. To our surprise, the representative produced an invoice (No. 9136) authorizing the dispatch of the goods issued by Rexall Pharma Group and included the required quantity and price. This was proof that the substance originated from the same company whose owner and director denied earlier any relation to the hormones in circulation.
Later we tried to analyze three packages of Boldegan, Bolden+, and Probold at four specialized government laboratories of the ministries of agriculture and health. Two of them claimed they were unable to analyze 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”, and he adds that “Since 2016, we have not stocked this product. The last shipment that entered Egypt was in 2011, after which we stopped importing it after the Ministry of Health refused to renew the import license for the product because it included Boldenone.”
Inspection campaigns however are continuing at the outlets selling these banned products, said Abdel-Hasib claiming that in the last six months, the authority found 587 violating entities; and those violations included medicines of unknown origin, expired products or companies operating without a license; which led to their immediate closure.
The law dictates the need to inspect calves, cows and all livestock prior to slaughtering at 464 slaughterhouses distributed nationwide. The purpose of this is to check the compliance of the animals meat with the set health standards.
In accordance with Ministerial Decree No. 517 of 1986, an animal should not be culled if it contains traces of medicines or hormones. To learn how the law is applied and how the examination process takes place, we chose to visit the largest and most up to date slaughterhouse nationwide where we examined the procedures applied during the Eid Al-Adha season (a period when livestock slaughtering peaks in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab and the Moslem world). The slaughterhouse director estimated that in July 2019, 55,000 animals were slaughtered.
A few meters away from the main gate of Al-Basateen neighborhood’s slaughterhouse, the director of the Department of Laboratories at the so-called Automated Slaughterhouse, Iman Sabri, was examining samples sent by slaughters “hall vets,” who were assigned to inspect calves and cows as they were being culled stated that “This lab lacks the scientific tools to detect hormones found in animal meat. But the research centers in Al-Dokki neighborhood and the one at the Ministry of Health are the most qualified to detect hormones in general,” says Sabri.
However, calves treated with hormones can be discovered by the naked eye judging their general shape, “If the calf’s muscles are detailed like those of bodybuilders, we suspect that they have been injected with hormones,” says Mustafa Abdel-Sami’, director of Al-Basateen’s Automated Slaughterhouse.
Thus, meats injected in farms with banned hormones reach Egyptians’ dining tables, despite their violation of standard specifications and ministerial decrees.
* According to data posted on samples of unknown origin that are being circulated among farmers and breeders