It seems that a beef-loving nation might be falling out of love. In Argentina, where beef consumption numbers are a national point of pride, beef may find itself overtaken as a favorite food by pizza, the New York Times reported in June.
In the not-too-distant past, Argentineans held the distinction of having the highest per capita beef consumption in the world. Their love for beef peaked in the 1950s, when they were eating about 222 pounds per person annually; now they’re down to just 129 pounds per person each year. Yes, that’s still a lot — in the United States, we average 57.7 pounds. But now the title of top per capita consumer of beef has gone to Uruguay, where they’re up to 132 pounds a year.
Among global beef exporters, Argentina also slipped this year. It’s ranking 11th, beaten by Uruguay, New Zealand and Mexico.
So where’s the (Argentinean) beef? On the consumer side, one factor that may be driving diners away from steakhouses is the surging prices. Rump steak prices reportedly rose some 90 percent in the last few years. In a typical Buenos Aires restaurant, a steak might cost nearly $13.
The price increase is blamed in part on inflation. Argentina’s inflation rate is among the highest in the Americas: Officially, it’s almost 10 percent a year. Analysts with inside knowledge of the economy report the true rate is probably twice that much.
High beef prices are also blamed on drops in production. The government’s price controls, meant to prevent domestic beef consumption from declining even more, have made it more expensive for cattlemen to maintain large herds, according to the cattlemen themselves. And government restrictions on beef exports haven’t helped them either, making marketing more challenging and creating less incentive for them to produce beef at all. For example, governmental policy says that for every 2.5 tons of beef exported, 1 ton must be sold on the domestic market at 50 percent the export price. That helps explain why, between 2006 and 2011, exports fell by 45 percent. Some ranchers have chosen to raise soybeans instead, currently a very lucrative crop thanks to China’s rising demand for grains.
For some analysts, the declining rates of beef consumption might be signaling something bigger: Maybe Argentineans are beginning to prefer a more varied diet. One research study suggests that pizzerias could indeed outnumber steakhouses in Buenos Aires before long, if they haven’t already done so. The study, completed a couple of years ago, showed the city was home to 650 pizzerias and 780 steakhouses but also found such strong interest among investors and restaurateurs in the pizza segment that researchers predicted that segment would continue steady growth.
What’s happening in Argentina could also be a sign of an even larger trend of lower beef consumption globally. Chicken overtook beef as America’s most popular meat sometime around 2000, according to data from the USDA and the Census Bureau. And there’s another milestone out there that’s suggestive of this interpretation: In 2012, perhaps for the first time, the global production of farmed fish was higher than the global production of beef, according to figures from the Earth Policy Institute.