Uruguay beef exporters set to benefit from new tracking sytem

By Jonathan Gilbet, in Buenos Aires

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Livestock Meat Beef

INAC has aggressively marketed Uruguay's beef abroad
INAC has aggressively marketed Uruguay's beef abroad
Beef producers in Uruguay are emerging as some of the most progressive and successful in Latin America with a universal system for electronically tracking cattle and a continued surge in exports.

The country’s accumulated exports of beef products for 2014 (up to 6 December) reached 229,907 tonnes – an increase of 5,750 tonnes compared to the same period in 2013, according to the National Meat Institute (Instituto Nacional de Carnes - INAC), which monitors and promotes the meat industry.

In a country of just 3.4 million people, cattle stocks are now around 11.9 million, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), their highest level since 2006. With around 2.9 million cattle born in 2014, USDA has also forecast Uruguay carcass-weight beef exports (cwe) in 2015 at 435,000 tonnes, their second highest ever, according to USDA.

Under a law enforced on 1 December last year (2013), all newborn cattle must be tagged electronically either before they are moved to another farm, or before they are six months old, so their origins can be precisely identified in abattoirs, which are also required by law to tag carcasses electronically. The idea is that even individual cuts of beef are traceable to a single farm and animal. The government-funded system is the most comprehensive in the world, its manager Daniel Abraham, of the INAC, told GlobalMeatNews​, and gives Uruguay a competitive advantage in a world market increasingly focused on food safety controls.

"Uruguay is competitive in foreign markets because we don’t just sell a hunk of beef, we sell confidence,"​ Abraham said in an interview, adding that 85% of Uruguay’s meat can now be traced throughout the entire production chain. "[The system] is unique in the world because it is obligatory, and centrally managed and administered; that’s our advantage. It gives us value-added. We don’t provide volume [to foreign markets], but we provide quality and assurance."

The new system dovetails with other government policies designed to boost the confidence of foreign markets in Uruguayan beef. These have included strict procedures to protect cattle stocks from diseases such as foot and mouth (following a 2001 outbreak), and BSE, including banning the treatment of beef with hormones, antibiotics and proteins; and ensuring cattle are mostly grass-fed.

INAC has also aggressively marketed Uruguay’s beef abroad, and encouraged producers to focus on China export markets. This has come when Argentina, Uruguay’s larger neighbour, has made life difficult for its producers by imposing price controls and export tariffs. Many have subsequently shifted into farming soybeans or wheat.

Shipments of Uruguay-sourced bone-in beef to China were 80,255 tonnes from 1 January to 6 December this year, according to INAC, comprising 24% of Uruguay’s total bone-in exports for 2014, far more than to any other single nation (the second largest destination was the US with 52,221 tonnes.) Total meat exports to China in 2013 were 147,613 tonnes, according to preliminary figures from INAC, up from 31,975 tonnes in 2008. INAC has even been considering opening a permanent office in China. Abraham said the only demanding foreign market to which Uruguay does not export is Japan because it prefers grain-fed beef.

Since the Broad Front (FA), Uruguay’s ruling leftist coalition, came to power for the first time, in 2005, it has favoured the agricultural sector and other industries so that it could redistribute some of their profits to expand the welfare state. The FA won its third consecutive term in elections on 30 November.

"I have to stress the importance of government policy and its impact on the growth of modern cattle ranching,"​ Ricardo Reilly, president of the Rural Association of Uruguay (ARU), told the December edition of the association’s Spanish-language magazine, the Revista ARU: "We highlight the work of the sanitary services [of the ministry of agriculture], which is key to maintaining our global status. Added to that, our tracking system [...] and INAC’s permanent efforts to promote our meat internationally has given us the key to the most demanding markets."

However, Reilly said he wanted to see the government work toward free-trade agreements that would make Uruguay’s meat industry more competitive. Abattoirs paid import tariffs in 2013 that totalled 17% of the value of meat exports, according to ARU’s estimates. "A better future for the meat sector means more economic and social development for Uruguay,"​ Reilly noted, adding, "With record cattle stocks, now more than ever we need tax-free meat exports."

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