Argentina's beloved beef becomes bone of contention as prices soar

·4-min read

The grill master salts the cut of beef that will go into the fire, from where it heads to the table where a hungry family is gathered.

It is an age-old ritual for Argentines to get together over a jaw-dropping "asado," but one that has grown increasingly out of the reach of many of them.

"Aside from being nourishment, beef is the center of the whole barbecue culture we Argentines have," said Emmanuel Lapetina, president of La Pena meatpackers.

"It is the get-together; it is the Sunday barbecue; and it is the excuse to get together with the family on weekends."

But all those heart-warming, stomach-inspiring moments of glory that people here experience with their grass-fed beef are under threat because of low purchasing power.

Despite high international prices, local inflation has seen the cost of beef surge a stunning 65 percent.

The government is keen to find a way to help more people be able to afford what feels like a birth right.

But a pricing row between the government of center-left president Alberto Fernandez and livestock producers drove the latter to declare a nine-day production halt.

"Nobody wants to stop eating 'asado.' It is in our culture to eat beef, that's why so there's so much tension when it gets very expensive," said Lapetina.

Argentina, recognized worldwide as a top flight grass-fed beef producer, is the world's number four beef exporter. It made 3.4 billion dollars in 2020 beef sales, with much going to Russia and China.

Locals' love for prized cuts has actually turned beef into a hot black market commodity.

And meat producers are suspicious of government involvement. Back in 2006, when Nestor Kirchner was leading the country and Fernandez was his chief of staff, a restriction on meat exports, initially planned for six months, ended up being extended for 10 years.

During that period, 12.5 million head of cattle and 19,000 jobs were lost that have not yet been recovered, according to the Chamber of Commerce of Meat and Derivatives.

- A passion for beef -

Gustavo Caballero, 34, has been a grill master for seven years at Don Julio restaurant in Buenos Aires, recognized in 2020 as the best in Latin America by the prestigious 50 Best Restaurants ranking. Before the Covid-19 pandemic it had an average of 500 diners per day.

"What I like, what I am really passionate about, is to see every time someone comes and eats a good barbecue. When they leave happy, that is something very special for me," Caballero said, as the tables placed on the terrace outside for health reasons began to fill up.

The restaurant goes to great lengths to procure the best meat. It has a refrigerator manager who goes to the market to look for the best cuts before any other buyers arrive, and since last year it has been running its own butcher shop in the Palermo neighborhood, one block from the restaurant.

Such is Don Julio's fame that German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a point of sampling its grilled meats when she visited Argentina in 2018 during a G20 summit.

- The origin -

Legend has it that before Buenos Aires had any inhabitants, it had cows.

Juan de Garay, the city's founder, arrived from Asuncion with cattle that reproduced very easily in the area of the River Plate, where he found a seasonal European-style climate.

Martin Vivanco has dedicated his life to raising breeding cattle in San Antonio de Areco, in the province of Buenos Aires, following in a family tradition linked to the land that he says should be preserved because "it is what the world appreciates."

"I do genetics with the Aberdeen Angus breed, I breed improved animals. I try to get my clients to incorporate the best possible genetics so that the meat continues to have the qualities for which it is most appreciated in the world: tenderness, taste, those things which have made Argentine beef famous," he said.

"The cows are always outdoors, in the field, in the rain, in the sun. That gives them some characteristics that are very good for the breed, which is rusticity, the ability to adapt to adverse climates," he said.

In the current local conflict over beef supplies and accessability, Vivanco has it clear, on the economic front.

"The problem is not whether the beef is cheap or expensive. The problem is that the consumption capacity of Argentines has decreased due to miserable wages and inflation," he stressed.

Argentina -- with 45 million people in a country of plains and Andean peaks -- has some 54 million head of cattle. It is one of two countries in South America -- with Uruguay -- where more people are descended from Italians than Spaniards.

In March, according to the latest statistics available from the Ministry of Agriculture, 1.1 million head were slaughtered, with a production of almost 261,000 tons of meat, of which 73,400 tons were for export, mainly to China.

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