Reluctant to undermine a renaissance of Argentine steak on world markets, the Argentine government hid an outbreak of bovine foot-and-mouth disease for months before divulging the problem this week, according to beef industry executives and diplomats.
The government confirmed Tuesday that it had detected foot-and-mouth disease again in Argentina, prompting immediate bans on imports of Argentine beef in the United States, the European Union and other nations. The bans have devastated the beef industry, which has long been an integral part of Argentine national pride and only recently overcame a long export slump due to an earlier outbreak of the disease.
Ranchers and beef industry officials said Argentine authorities were aware of the outbreak by the end of last year and, largely in agreement with the meat industry, hid the problem to avoid the panic sweeping Europe over "mad cow" disease. By January, sources said, the government secretly began vaccinating thousands of head of cattle in infected areas in at least three rural provinces.
"It's simple -- they lied," said Enrique Klein, a cattle executive at a ranch 170 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. Klein said his fellow ranchers in the Santa Fe region first spotted foot-and-mouth disease late last year and immediately notified authorities. He noticed the first case among his livestock in early January. "It was so contagious that I ended up with 300 cases. But the government was out here dealing with it in January. They were vaccinating my cattle. They were vaccinating everybody's cattle. They were just lying about it."
As information on the coverup leaked out in local news reports in recent days, the agriculture minister and the head of the animal sanitation authority were pressed to resign.
Eduardo Greco, acting director of the National Sanitary and Agricultural Quality Control Service (SENASA), said in an interview today that the government began vaccinating animals in some regions "around mid-February" but maintained that no full-blown cases of foot-and-mouth had been discovered before the announcement this week. "We were, at least not officially, aware of any cases before that," he said.
At a farm expo Thursday, however, incoming Agricultural Minister Eduardo Manciana promised that Argentina would clarify the extent and the depth of the outbreak within two weeks, adding that the government would have a future policy of "total transparency" on foot-and-mouth.
The outbreak could not have come at a worse time for the troubled government of President Fernando de la Rua. Exports of Argentine beef, worth $40 million a month to the Argentine economy, were one of the rare bright spots in a nation mired in a 32-month recession and reeling from unemployment above 15 percent. After his government announced a $4.45 billion austerity program today, several officials, including the interior and education ministers, resigned, fracturing the ruling coalition.
Moreover, Argentina had just eradicated bovine foot-and-mouth disease in the late 1990s, wiping away a decades-long taint on Argentine meat. The country was reveling in a global resurgence of its famous beef, which was once again being served in fashionable restaurants in the United States and especially Europe, where the free-range flavor from the land of the gaucho was being touted as a safe alternative during the mad cow scare.
Industry officials said the new international bans -- by all major importers except Russia and Israel -- will cost South America's second-largest economy $250 million in lost exports this year and could produce an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 layoffs at slaughterhouses and farms.
It could take years before Argentina is again declared free of the disease, which makes exports difficult because importing nations fear meat shipments could carry the virus to animals on their own farms. Diplomats and industry sources say Argentina faces a much greater hurdle than other nations in trying to eradicate the disease: It must also win back the trust of its customers.
The European Union, unlike the United States and Canada, does not explicitly ban beef imports from countries with outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease. But it imposed restrictions on Argentina this week, partly because of the continent-wide beef scare but also, diplomats said, because it appeared that Argentine authorities had not offered full disclosure.
"The decision taken by the European Union was in direct relation to the fact that Argentina provided insufficient information," said a European diplomat in Buenos Aires who asked not to be named. "In fact, it was more than insufficient, it was misinformation on a very large scale. And they face a larger burden of proof now when they finally do go back into the market."
Argentina's neighbors are furious about the alleged coverup. Cattle officials in Brazil and Chile are particularly fearful that their herds may have been affected. In Chile, authorities have begun forcing people, cars and animals crossing the border with Argentina to be disinfected with sprays and shoe washes.
"Argentina acknowledged the existence of the disease only when the problem was already evident, because it had spread throughout the country and it was impossible to keep secret," said Andres Santa Cruz, president of Chile's National Agriculture Association.
Some in the beef industry here, however, defend government officials, saying foreign consumers are confusing mad cow disease, which can harm humans, and foot-and-mouth disease, which causes blisters and fevers in livestock but has no proven link to human illness.
"Yes, the government was aware of the breakout before they said anything," said Manuel Canbanellas, president of the Rural Confederation of Argentina. "And maybe they should have respected national treaties and been public about the problem. But they were probably afraid of what is happening right now -- a total overreaction internationally."