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Published July 08, 2013, 11:08 AM

Tastes shifting from beef in Argentina

It is hard to overstate beef’s centrality to the Argentine way of life for more than a century. Beef prices have surged with inflation, but cattlemen contend that government price controls aimed at preventing domestic beef consumption from falling further have wreaked havoc by making it costly to maintain large herds.

By: Simon Romero, New York Times News Service

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — A thick slab of grass-fed sirloin dripping in its own juices: So many Argentines consider such a feast a birthright to be enjoyed regularly that one president in the 1990s quipped to an American magazine, “Tell your readers, ‘Don’t come to my country if they’re vegetarian.’”

But tastes change, even here.

Beef consumption in this red-meat colossus has decreased so much over the decades that the nation recently fell from its perch as the world’s top per capita consumer of beef, a title Argentine ranchers are fighting to regain from their tiny neighbor, Uruguay. In another jolt, a study warned that pizzerias could soon outnumber steakhouses in Buenos Aires.

As if that were not enough to rattle the national psyche, Argentina slipped into 11th place, behind countries such as New Zealand and Mexico, in the global ranking of beef exporters this year, prompting solemn reactions including one in a major newspaper that declared it “the end of a reign.”

“We live, at this moment, immersed in shame,” the writer Diego Vecino said in a recent 4,000-word magazine article that explored declining beef consumption. “In the last few years, our Argentine national identity has been roughed up as never before,” he lamented, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek fashion. “The ritual of the barbecue persists, but in many cases under the kitsch glow of a retro experience.”

It is hard to overstate beef’s centrality to the Argentine way of life for more than a century. Novels and poems extol the art of cattle ranching on the vast pampas, long a touchstone of national pride. Cafes bulge with diners feasting on steaks washed down with glasses of malbec. At lunchtime, it is still possible to see construction crews preparing slabs of beef on makeshift grills, the smoky smell of this ritual permeating their work sites.

Argentines ate about 129 pounds of beef per person last year, far surpassing Americans, who mustered a mere 57.5 pounds by comparison. But Argentina’s current level is a pale shadow of its peak: 222 pounds of beef for every man, woman and child, achieved in 1956.

Reasons vary for these doldrums. Beef prices have surged with inflation, but cattlemen contend that government price controls aimed at preventing domestic beef consumption from falling further have wreaked havoc by making it costly to maintain large herds. Others, eying China’s rising demand for grains in the past decade, say it is simply more profitable to farm soybeans than to raise cattle.

“We are witnessing a historic decline in our beef industry,” says Ernesto Ambrosetti, chief economist of the Argentine Rural Society, the country’s largest farming association. “Now our smaller neighbors, Paraguay and Uruguay, have passed us” in the export rankings.

Government officials contend that their policies to lift beef consumption, including export restraints and price controls intended to make the meat more affordable, are turning the tide. Indeed, domestic consumption has recovered slightly from a record low in 2011.

But while Argentina has experienced swings in beef consumption in the past, some see the latest drops as evidence of a broader paradigm shift: Many Argentines are simply opting for a more varied diet.

The shift — reflected in a rising demand for foods such as poultry, pasta and pizza; a greater awareness of the health risks associated with eating beef; and even the emergence of an insurgent vegetarian dining scene in Buenos Aires — does not sit well with some Argentines.

“Beef consumption is threatened by modern trends of healthy eating, mainly the exaltation of what’s natural and ecological, stimulating vegetable consumption,” the Argentine Beef Promotion Institute warned in a 2006 report, warily acknowledging a “new age culture and the appearance of cooking fads incorporating other products.”

For some Argentines who were raised in a society so focused on beef, the adjustment was long overdue. “I almost don’t eat meat now,” says Susana Carfagna, a 61-year-old retiree, as she walks out of a butcher shop with some ground chicken.

The growth of vegetarian restaurants in Argentina’s capital has unfolded at a time of big change — some say upheaval — in the countryside. As recently as 2007, Argentina had about 55.6 million head of cattle, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That number fell to 48.1 million in 2011, before recovering somewhat this year to an estimated 51.2 million. (That is still more cows than people, given the country’s population of more than 40 million.)

Other protein

Officials have also promoted other types of animal protein, however, reflecting the nation’s dependence on agribusiness. “It is much more gratifying to eat some grilled pork than to take Viagra,” President Cristina Fernndez de Kirchner said in 2010, joking about what she described as the meat’s libido-enhancing qualities while announcing subsidies for the pork industry.

For many Argentines, how much beef they eat comes down to another factor: price. In the past three years, coveted cuts of cuadril (rump steaks) have jumped in price almost 90 percent, to about $5.80 a pound, says Juan Pagano, a butcher in the neighborhood of Colegiales.

“It’s unbelievable how the prices have shot up,” says Eduardo Gonzalez, 48, who cleans industrial water tanks for a living. Buying a relatively cheap and tough cut of beef one recent evening at a supermarket, he said he could no longer afford sirloin.

“But I still try to eat beef four times a week; if I did not, I would die.” he says, with a chuckle. “It is fundamental.”

Indeed, many Argentines are not taking the decline of their beef industry lying down. Claudia Valenti, a nutritionist for the municipality of Buenos Aires, says people should eat beef, preferably lean cuts, every day.

“We are not herbivores,” Valenti says.

“Human beings never were, apart from at the very beginning of time.”

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