Pampas parable: Cattle ailment returns to Argentina

Ranchers, meat packers, and exporters in Argentina, the world's No. 5 beef producer, are reeling after the national food-health agency admitted one week ago to hundreds of cases of foot-and-mouth disease.

Within days, governments in North America and Europe closed their borders. Only 15 percent of the country's 2.5 million-ton production is exported, mainly to Chile, Germany, and the US. But analysts say losses could total $450 million a year.

Processing plants and slaughterhouses have already begun laying off workers, while farmers' groups warned the situation could get worse. Argentina's 50 million cattle graze largely on the grasslands of the Pampas region, corralled by gauchos, Argentina's cowboys, whose tough lifestyle and distinctive dress have made them cultural icons.

Even before the crisis, the industry faced falling prices and declining domestic sales. Argentines eat prodigious amounts of beef - at 140 pounds a year, twice as much as the average American. But consumption has dropped 22 percent over the past decade as low-cholesterol diets, vegetarian food, fish, and poultry gain popularity.

Things had been looking up, however, after Argentina won a much-prized "free of foot-and-mouth without vaccination" certification from the Paris-based International Epizootic Office in May. "I was in Paris when we won," says Enrique Crotto, president of Argentina's Rural Society, which represents large agricultural interests. "We were very happy indeed." The certificate opened lucrative export markets in the US, Canada, and Mexico. Exporters began to knock aside Australian producers, finding buyers in South Korea and Japan. And with Europe racked by concerns over mad-cow disease (BSE), producers began to talk about when - not if - Argentina would reach the goal of 1 million tons of annual beef exports.

Now, some say it happened too fast. "We were in a hurry when we stopped vaccinating last year," says Juan Protto, a Harvard-educated rancher and Buenos Aires restaurateur. "Most government officials were busy ... celebrating. But producers know the truth: We've had reappearances of foot-and-mouth all over the country for months."

The first alert came in August, when health authorities admitted a small group of cattle smuggled in from Paraguay was suspected of carrying the virus. The farming and food-health agency, SENASA, imposed a two-month voluntary suspension on beef exports from affected areas and began a limited vaccination program. But despite months of official denials, the effort failed to contain the disease. "We just didn't apply enough controls," says Mr. Protto.

Some producers accuse governments in Europe and North America of using health scares to ward off foreign competition. "They are hypocrites," says Mr. Crotto. "They should take off their masks and admit that foot-and-mouth is a commercial barrier, not a health issue. It doesn't even affect humans. It's BSE that's the real problem."

Outside the industry, there is a different view. "Protectionism is certainly an issue," says Ricardo Cavanagh, an analyst in Buenos Aires with US-based brokerage Raymond James. "But the basic problem is our porous frontiers. It's difficult to prevent the entrance of infected cattle from outside."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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