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food / travel

Why Argentina's Famous Beef Has Gotten So Fatty

Argentine laws set a minimum weight for slaughtered cattle, forcing farmers to produce 'fattened' beef, but meat eaters are not so keen.

Meat handing in an Argentinian slaughter house
Meat handing in an Argentinian slaughter house
Lucas Villamil

BUENOS AIRESFew things are as easy to spot for an Argentinian as a cut of meat with excess fat on it. We are experts at looking for the right pieces, not too fatty nor too lean, and expect the butcher to work magic with his (or her) knife, to ensure that later on the cook gets a round of applause. Paradoxically, current policies on slaughter conspire against the perfect cut, generating excess fat on beef and undermining profitability in the production chain.

Initially, "animals make more meat than fat," says Gustavo Sueldo, a consultant to the feedlot business, but at the end, "the proportion is inverse and for every added kilogram, 70% is fat. There are a lot of females today that would be slaughtered at 270 kilograms, but producers are being forced to reach 310 kilograms, which raises costs and adds a lot of fat." Customers, he says, respond negatively to this excess fat, concentrated between the meat and rib, and butchers are asked to remove it from cuts.


Cattle cow at auction in Buenos Aires — Photo: Eva Fisher/DPA/Zuma

The reason for this is a law in force since 2018 which requires a minimum weight of 300 kilograms before any cattle is sent for slaughter. The norm does not however differentiate between male and female, which have different rates of fattiness. "Females by nature, put on fat before males do, have an inferior growth rate and with the same weight gain, a male makes more meat than a female. It is very difficult for some females to reach this weight," Sueldo says.

The slaughter weight is a subject of debate now throughout the meat production chain. The idea behind it is to enhance production, maximizing exports to meet growing demand, without neglecting the important domestic market. But producers say more fundamental production stimuli are needed.

Customers respond negatively to this excess fat.

"We all want to put more kilos onto the animal," says Sueldo, "but this cannot be done by losing money. The structure of production and sales must change to justify adding kilos." He adds that Argentina does not have enough large-scale rearing fields, forcing feedlots to buy leaner animals and boost their weight on site and suggests an alternative option when it coms to exports: "Exports of cattle, which are an asset, have grown, so what we need is to export more heifers, which are an exchange good. The business has to be making more heifers. We have to work on giving Argentina access to those markets that pay more for the meat of young bulls. For that we need better traceability systems, certifications and we need trade deals."

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