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How corruption charges against a New Jersey senator are tied to meat prices in Cairo

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The case against Democratic New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez is far-reaching, and so is the corruption he's accused of. We're going to talk now about one aspect of the case which takes us to Egypt. Prosecutors say the senator used his power to boost a halal meat business in New Jersey, and an independent media outlet in Egypt helped uncover a critical part of this story in 2019. The headline in Mada Masr read "How The Multimillion-Dollar Business Of Certifying Halal Meat Imports Was Monopolized." Reporter Nada Arafat joins us from Cairo. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

NADA ARAFAT: Hi.

SHAPIRO: Why did you begin looking into this story?

ARAFAT: So in 2019, we started noticing a sudden rise in imported meat prices. So I had a long discussion with my editors, and we started linking dots together. And everything led us to see that the reason for meat price hikes was linked to this one company, IS EG.

SHAPIRO: As you began looking into this, what did you learn?

ARAFAT: We find that IS EG is the sole certifier.

SHAPIRO: So you found that IS EG had become the sole certifier, that basically, they had a monopoly over certifying halal meat.

ARAFAT: Yeah. And what was odd is that the company was established in 2017 in New Jersey, and nobody heard about it. And it actually didn't even have a website until 2019, just a few days before the Egyptian government gave it a monopoly. Wael Hana - he appeared out of nowhere. He is a Christian Egyptian who immigrated to the U.S. a few years back.

SHAPIRO: So this one New Jersey company run by this Christian Egyptian man named Wael Hana suddenly has a monopoly on halal meat certification for imports to Egypt.

ARAFAT: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Allegedly, he got that money with the help of Bob Menendez, and then the company hiked their prices dramatically. What did that mean for the average Egyptian buying meat?

ARAFAT: So in Egypt, meat prices have been soaring since then. Egypt has limited access now to dollar necessity for imports. And when you start to direct this cash to the import of meat from abroad, you have less cash to use to import feed for the local livestock. So it was the price of imported meat rising. The price of local meat is also rising.

SHAPIRO: I want to play a clip for you from federal prosecutor Damian Williams talking about the indictment against Senator Menendez.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAMIAN WILLIAMS: We also allege that Senator Menendez improperly pressured a senior official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to protect a lucrative monopoly that the government of Egypt had awarded to Hana.

SHAPIRO: He's basically talking about the story you broke. How does it feel to know that your reporting had these ripples, this major impact across the ocean?

ARAFAT: So when Mada finally put all the piece together and broke the story, we never imagined it could lead to the situation we are in right now. And we simply thought it was another attempt by well-linked businessmen engaging in dodgy operation to profit. So as I understand, the case is still open, and we are sure this will not be the last one of it.

SHAPIRO: But the problem has not yet been solved. The price of meat remains as high as it was when you revealed the monopoly.

ARAFAT: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: I know it's difficult to be a journalist working in Egypt generally, and yet here you are with this hugely impactful story. What does it take to get a project like this done, working in Cairo?

ARAFAT: When we started looking into the story, we could only hear rumors, so we needed a trusted source. So this is something that's very rare in Egypt, but thanks to the open database in USA, we are able to access very trusted information about the company that enabled us to piece together all the other information we have been hearing.

SHAPIRO: So it was open records in the U.S. that allowed you to...

ARAFAT: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: ...Verify...

ARAFAT: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...The rumors you had been...

ARAFAT: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Hearing in Egypt.

ARAFAT: Exactly. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Nada Arafat is the food security reporter for Mada Masr speaking with us from Cairo. Thank you so much for your reporting.

ARAFAT: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tinbete Ermyas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.

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