Business & Economy

Argentine domestic beef consumption falls to historic low

By Veronica Dalto

Buenos Aires, Jan 15 (efe-epa).- Argentina is world-renowned for cattle that feed on the rich grass of the Pampas and its people’s “asados,” barbecue feasts and ritualistic social gatherings in which beef often takes center stage.

But annual consumption of that type of meat fell to a historic low of 49.7 kilograms per person in that South American country in 2020, due partly to a drop in purchasing power amid high inflation and the coronavirus crisis but also to people’s greater openness to eating chicken and pork.

Argentina’s per-capita annual beef consumption reached an all-time high of 100.8 kg in 1956, according to the country’s Ciccra meat-industry chamber.

“Our beef consumption has been gradually and slowly falling. It’s probable that we’ll end up with consumption similar to that of the developed countries,” Ciccra’s president, Miguel Schiariti, told Efe, referring to the more moderate consumption of beef in places such as the United States (35 kg per person) or the European Union (20 kg).

The particularly sharp rise in the price of beef – up 74.8 percent year-over-year in December, according to the Mediterranean Foundation’s IERAL think tank – is a major factor in Argentines’ decision to turn to other meats such as chicken (whose price was up 58 percent) and pork (up 59 percent).

“We’re carnivores by nature,” Schiariti added.

Indeed, considering that per-capita chicken and pork consumption amounted to 44 kg and 14 kg, respectively, total meat consumption rose last year to 108 kg per person.

The change in eating habits has occurred in a context of record animal protein production and export numbers in Argentina, a country that has been mired in recession for the past three years yet also is experiencing high levels of inflation and a decline in purchasing power.

The country’s economic woes have been exacerbated over the past 10 months by the coronavirus pandemic.

One close observer of the downward trend in beef consumption has been Emmanuel Lapetina of Frigorifico La Peña, a beef retailer at Buenos Aires’ Mercado Central.

He told Efe that the change is strictly a matter of pricing, saying domestic prices have been affected by beef exports and high overall inflation, which ended 2020 at a cumulative rate of 36.1 percent.

“People turn to other types of meat depending on the monthly price,” Lapetina said.

Schiariti added that, due to rising costs, cows were taken late last year to graze on pasture land rather than being fattened with corn meal. This slowed down the production process and contributed to a reduction in supply at a time when, due to the economic reopening after a months-long coronavirus-triggered shutdown, demand was rising.

“It was an explosive combination,” he said.

Argentine producers now are concerned that public policies to contain inflation in a year of legislative elections could adversely affect exports.

“There’s great fear in the sector that old errors will be repeated,” said Schiariti, who recalled that market intervention policies and export quotas imposed in 2008 and 2009 to contain domestic prices caused the country’s cattle herd to fall by 20 percent, or 12.5 million head.

Not even half of that lost stock has been recovered, with the country’s current cattle inventory numbering around 53 million head.

Argentina’s current vice president, Cristina Fernandez, held her nation’s highest office during that earlier market intervention, and the current head of state, Alberto Fernandez, is of a similar ideological bent.

Around 29 percent of Argentina’s beef production is exported (compared to 8 percent in 2015), the vast majority to China, and roughly 71 percent is consumed domestically.

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