Excitement and skepticism meet Algeria’s decision to import beef to meet high demand during Ramadan

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Algeria is importing massive amounts of beef and lamb to confront an explosion in demand for meat expected throughout the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, hoping to stabilize prices as the country’s economy continues to struggle.

The oil-rich North African nation is among countries working to import food and fuel, hoping to meet the requirements of Algerians preparing nightly feasts as their families break their sunrise-to-sunset fasts.

For Algerians flocking to new imported meat stores staffed by butchers in white coats, the arrival of beef from as far away as Australia has raised both excitement and skepticism.

“The opening of stores like this one is a breath of fresh air for those who can’t afford to buy local meat. As you’ve seen, the product is of high quality, and so much the better,” retired teacher Rabah Belahouane said after waiting in line at a new store for 30 minutes.

By importing food products, Algeria hopes to avoid skyrocketing prices affecting those who can’t afford locally sourced red meat. Such inflation plagued the country as recently as last year when the onion supply couldn’t keep up with demand. Neighboring Tunisia plans to import bananas from Egypt while Mali plans to accept donated fuel from Russia.

For Algeria, the decision to import 100,000 tons of red meat this Ramadan reverses a previous policy banning the import of the products. That policy was designed to help bolster domestic producers but has sparked pushback as the price of local meat spiked.

“It’s the president’s decision to reopen imports to permit ordinary citizens to be able to eat meat at a reasonable price and not have to put up with butchers who sell local beef, albeit of higher quality, at impossible prices,” Algeria’s Commerce Minister Tayeb Zitouni said last week.

The import plan comes as meat prices remain high relative to the median income and minimum wage in Algeria which has struggled to tame inflation and rising cost of living.

Butchers understand that their prices present challenges for consumers nationwide but disagree with officials like Zitouni who blame them.

“Local meat is expensive. It’s unfortunately become a luxury product, but that isn’t butchers’ fault or reason to unfairly single them out,” said Salim Lamari, the 40-year-old owner of a family butchery east of Algiers.

He said that butchers depended on livestock farmers who had to raise their prices amid drought and spikes in the price of animal feed.

The crisis led Algeria — where politicians have long been skeptical of imports — to grant new import licenses to private businesses and the state entities governing the meat industry.

The country has expanded existing contracts with meat suppliers in Argentina and begun importing from Brazil, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Russia and Australia as the first week of Ramadan begins.

The meat has been vacuum-packed and shipped to be distributed nationwide in refrigerated vehicles.

Though many have jostled to purchase meat at a fraction of the domestic price ahead of the holy month, the Ministry of Agriculture has repeatedly told local media that detractors questioning the meat’s quality were peddling propaganda.

With its large meat-eating population, Algeria imports an average of 103,889 head of cattle per year, including breeding stock, fattening cattle and beef cattle, according to figures from the World Organization for Animal Health published before the Ramadan surge.

Algeria is also importing beans and onions to deal with recurring supermarket shortages and avoid price spikes that happened during last year’s holy month.