updated 3/16/2006 7:28:51 AM ET 2006-03-16T12:28:51

Argentines rank among the world’s biggest meat-eaters. But President Nestor Kirchner has told his carnivorous compatriots it’s time to consume less if beef prices continue to rise and threaten his campaign against inflation.

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But isn’t that like shunning the tango or telling a soccer-mad nation to skip the World Cup?

Just ask Argentines, who made Kirchner’s stridently public threats of a near-boycott on beef the talk of the town Wednesday at barbecue pits and steakhouses across this vast cattle-raising country.

What’s the Argentine president’s beef with beef?

Kirchner on Tuesday urged consumers to “buy less beef if they don’t lower the price,” speaking of industry prices he is trying to control.

“Let’s make them feel the power of the consumer so they don’t sell at whatever prices they want,” he said.

A recent spike of more than 10 percent in meat prices has roiled the president, wary of past hyperinflation in a South American country that has suffered wrenching economic crises throughout its history — the last in 2001-2002. Inflation topped 12 percent last year and many fear more double-digit inflation by year’s end.

Still, it was unclear Wednesday whether Argentines were heeding the call as restaurants grilled juicy racks of ribs in restaurants around Buenos Aires and crowds flocked to open-air steakhouses as always.

What pasta is to Italy, red meat is to Argentina. This country once boasted its working class could eat beef almost every day. On weekends, smoke swirls across whole neighborhoods as barbecuing families unite for the Sunday “asado.” And in cattle country, Argentine cowboys roast entire sides of beef for tourists.

Alberto Penalva turned thick steaks at the Don Jose barbecue stand, shaking his head as he insisted no Argentine family could live without meat.

“How can he say not to eat meat? This is crazy,” Penalva said.

But newspaper vendor Pedro Marcoti vowed he’d change his diet to fight inflation.

“I don’t have a problem with eating a little more chicken or fish,” Marcoti said. “I like a good steak sandwich every day, but I’m going to listen to the president.”

The government expects inflation could reach 11 percent by year’s end. But some economists believe inflation could go higher and meat prices — as a major component of the consumer price index — are key to holding the line.

Last week in a bid to put more meat on the domestic market Kirchner announced a 180-day suspension on most beef exports by the world’s fifth-largest producing nation.

Argentina’s beef industry rejected charges it was hiking prices unnecessarily, saying its costs have risen while pointing to a boom in soybean production by ranchers, taking millions of head of cattle out of production.

But as political analyst Ricardo Rouvier explained: “Inflation right now is the chief opposition force in the country, more so than any other politician. In fact, inflation can do much more damage to this government than any politician ever could.”

Never mind that opinion polls show Kirchner’s approval ratings still hover above 60 percent after nearly three years in power.

“The point is the president already had to navigate through 12 percent inflation last year and if inflation rises above 12 percent this year, things could get complicated,” Rouvier added. “Once you start hitting people in the pocketbook, they could start getting angry.”

Following a 2002 financial crisis that slashed Argentines’ purchasing power overnight, South America’s second-largest economy began growing three years ago. But many Argentines complain rising prices are increasingly putting goods out of reach. Kirchner has since arranged price accords with supermarkets, dairy producers and pharmaceutical makers to squelch inflation.

Still the price of beef is key in a country where Argentines consume more than 130 pounds per person each year. One beef industry study estimated Argentines eat meat an average of 17 days a month — whether barbecued ribs, ground beef, breaded veal steaks or in stews.

Meanwhile, Argentina exported nearly 600,000 metric tons (660,000 tons) of beef to more than 80 countries last year for $1.4 billion. Russia and the European Union have been key markets.

If prices aren’t held down, Kirchner said he wouldn’t hesitate to extend the ban a full year.

Delivery man Leandro Alderete ate his steak sandwich and lauded Kirchner for what he saw as gutsy moves. But he wondered how many Argentines would really eat chicken, fish or vegetables.

“It’s good what Kirchner’s doing, but I’m not going to follow it,” he said. “You can’t live eating only vegetables.”

The Argentine newspaper Clarin reported Wednesday that Argentine beef consumption has actually increased over the past year, with per capita consumption rates rising from 127 pounds to 134 pounds since January 2005.

Ironically, the beef flap comes ahead of a public art exhibit opening this month called “Cow Parade” that will display life-sized replicas of wackily painted cows on steakhouse row here.

Isabel Stachuk, an artist who was painting a map of Argentina on a fiberglass cow, said she thought the ado about beef would die down quickly. “This being on the black list will pass, but the cow is our tradition.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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