Argentina Falls From Its Throne as King of Beef

from The New York Times..

By Simon Romero

June 13, 2013

BUENOS AIRES — 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 this city.

As if that were not enough to rattle the national psyche, Argentina slipped into 11th place, behind countries like New Zealand and Mexico, in the global ranking of beef exporters this year, prompting solemn reactions like 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-plus-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 in this city 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 a 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 over the last decade, say it is simply more profitable to farm soybeans than to raise cattle.

“We are witnessing a historic decline in our beef industry,” said 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 like 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,” said Susana Carfagna, a 61-year-old retiree, as she walked out of a butcher shop with some ground chicken as an alternative to beef burgers. “It’s not healthy. I have high cholesterol and need a more balanced diet.”

At Buenos Aires Verde, a vegetarian restaurant with a pastel orange and lime green color scheme, diners can choose from options like patties made from yamani rice and adzuki beans, or cannelloni made with dehydrated fruit and flax seeds.

“Argentines are demanding a change,” Mauro Massimino, 33, a vegetarian who owns the restaurant, said as his predominantly svelte clientele ate their meals. “Around five years ago, vegetarianism started to gain traction here, and the growth since has been incredible.”

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Link to the entire article: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/14/world/americas/argentina-falls-from-its-throne-as-king-of-beef.html?ref=americas

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