By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 20, 2006
BUENOS AIRES -- Guillermo Ugartemendia has nothing against making sacrifices for his country, but like millions of Argentines, he drew the line when the president asked everyone to stop eating so much beef.
"Unthinkable," said Ugartemendia, 35, after polishing off a rack of ribs at a steakhouse Thursday night. "It's not a viable option."
Asking Argentines to slow their beef consumption -- as President Nestor Kirchner did last week in an attempt to curb inflation -- is like asking Italians to say no to pasta, Parisians to skip wine, or the Chinese to eat less rice.
People here eat more beef than do people in any other country -- about 140 pounds a year per person, or about 50 percent more than the average American. A juicy slab of marbled steak is more than a meal for many of Argentina's 39 million citizens; it's part of their national identity.
Patricia Campos, mother of three teenagers, briefly considered heeding Kirchner's call and cooking something other than steak -- fish fillets, maybe -- for her family. What's the worst that could have happened?
"They would starve to death," she said, just before she paid her local butcher for three sackfuls of red meat, some cuts of which jumped in price by more than 5 percent during the first 15 days of this month. "They simply wouldn't eat. I understand that we need to do something about inflation, but this isn't the solution."
Argentines remember the hyperinflation of the 1980s, when it was possible for a carton of milk to double in price in one day. Now inflation is much lower -- just over 12 percent last year -- but Kirchner is trying to stop the rate from creeping up again before it spirals out of control.
This month he also banned all beef exports for six months, an attempt to make the laws of supply and demand work in his favor and reduce prices at local supermarkets.
"Let's make them feel the power of the consumer so they don't sell at whatever prices they want," Kirchner said in a televised speech Tuesday.
The moves have provided fuel for Kirchner's critics, who say he meddles with the marketplace to try to protect his domestic political standing. Argentina is the world's third-largest exporter of beef, and cattle industry representatives have called the ban shortsighted. Experts in some of the country's main export markets, including Russia and Israel, are predicting beef shortages.
But Kirchner's approval rating at home remains at about 60 percent, and his supporters say the export ban is part of a valiant effort to help them regain spending power and stabilize the economy. It was in the same spirit last year that he called for a boycott of Shell gasoline in the wake of price increases. Hundreds took up his call and picketed outside the company's service stations.
As for last week's suggestion to eat something other than beef, even some supporters said it might not work.
"It's not a bad idea, but there are obvious problems with it," said Rosa Paez, 66, of Buenos Aires. "A lot of people here have never really understood the importance of eating greens, vegetables or seafood. Personally, I don't like seafood. So what can I do?"
She can buy more beef, which is exactly what she did, paying the equivalent of about $3 per pound for filet mignon.
Adelina Ordoñez, of the Argentine Association of Dietitians, said such faithful allegiance to the country's most famous staple is the principal problem she and her colleagues regularly encounter in trying to improve Argentines' diet.
"In a way, the president is cooperating with dietitians by encouraging people to pick a variety of other foods," said Ordoñez, who said she advises clients to vary their meat consumption with fish, poultry, lamb, eggs and other sources of protein. "It's difficult to make people change their habits, but it can be done."
An informal survey of butchers in the capital revealed that business hadn't changed significantly last week. In a market where several butcher shops compete side by side in the San Telmo neighborhood, Jorge Alejandro Santiago sharpened his knives and prepared to cut a chunk of tenderloin into steaks.
"What are people going to do, buy chicken?" said the skeptical 65-year-old butcher, whose shop sits across the aisle from a poultry vendor. "Chicken's no good -- it's full of water. If you eat a piece of chicken for dinner, you'll be hungry a half-hour later."
But don't pity the poultry man. Daniel Fernandez seemed to float on waves of national pride as he sliced chicken breasts and placed them under his glass display cabinet. Business, he said, seemed slightly more brisk than normal last week. He wasn't sure it had anything to do with the president's request, but he figured it couldn't have hurt.
"I think the president's idea was a very good one," he said, safely out of earshot of his red-meat competitors. "Look at the price of beef right now -- it's like robbery."