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Exclusive: Where's the beef? Argentine ranchers hope more is headed for China


By Maximilian Heath, Dominique Patton and Hugh Bronstein

BUENOS AIRES/BEIJING (Reuters) - Cattle ranchers in Argentina, which recently edged out neighbor Brazil as the top exporter of beef to China, are hoping to build on that status by getting more local meatpacking plants approved by Beijing, industry officials and other sources told Reuters.

An Argentine industry group is currently in China looking to promote the South American country's famed T-bone steaks and sirloins, while Chinese teams have recently inspected Argentine local meat plants, the sources said.

The push, after a massive spike in Argentine beef exports to the world's No. 2 economy this year, underscores how China is looking to diversify its protein supply, shaking up the global meat trade as African swine fever hammers its domestic hog herd.

It is also an important windfall for Latin America's No. 3 economy, which is battling to get out of a deep recession and facing a swirling debt crisis ahead of elections in October that will likely usher in a new government.

Argentina, which traditionally exports cheaper cuts to China, saw its beef sales to the country more than double to $870 million in the first seven months of the year, data from its official INDEC statistics agency shows.

Chinese customs data show that amounted to around 185,604 tonnes of Argentine beef, giving it the top share of the Chinese import market with 21.7%, slightly ahead of Brazil's 21.03%. That volume was a jump of 129% against the year before.

Santiago del Solar, chief of staff to Argentina's agriculture minister, told Reuters there were many slaughterhouses up for approval and that China was working closely with Argentine food safety body Senasa.

"We will have news in the coming months about more pork, poultry and beef slaughterhouses being approved for China," he said, adding Senasa was doing some inspections on behalf of China using an "honor system."

CHINA'S TIME FRAME

Argentina's ranchers are now looking for more. A trade delegation is currently in China meeting with potential buyers of the country's meat, an industry official with knowledge of the meetings told Reuters.

The person added that a Chinese team had also recently traveled to Argentina to visit local meat plants.

"The Chinese were there last week in Buenos Aires, they were doing inspections and made good progress. The plants issue is pretty good, but with China they make approvals when they want to do it," he said.

"We are optimistic with the results. It seems they didn't find anomalies, but yes, it depends on the time frame of the Chinese."

The progress comes after China granted export licenses to 25 Brazilian meatpacking plants earlier this month. Brazil has also seen a surge in meat demand from China.

China's General Administration of Customs, which approves new imports, also recently gave the green light to imports of soymeal from Argentina, following decades of talks between the two countries.

The customs body did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment from Reuters asking about new Chinese approvals for Argentine meat plants.

A second person, a manager at a state-owned Chinese trading house, said he had met with an Argentine firm last week during the delegation's visit. He declined to name the firm, which had met with China customs officials, but said it had already been approved for exports and was seeking further plant approvals.

Miguel Schiariti, president of the CICCRA meat industry chamber, said a Chinese team had also recently done a video-conference inspection of an Argentine plant alongside Senasa, with the aim of approving the facility for export.

"There are 11 meat plants ready to be approved and (the Chinese) are doing it one by one. But approval is taking a long time," he told Reuters.

"These places would meet the criteria for approval, but the Chinese have always been very cautious, despite the problems they have with pork. It seems to me that plants won't get approved before November."

(Reporting by Maximilian Heath and Hugh Bronstein in Buenos Aires and Dominique Patton in Beijing; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Tom Brown)


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