Here’s the Beef
Cattle outnumber people more than 3 to 1 in Uruguay
by Bill Armbruster, blog anchor
Get a group of trade policy junkies together and the first word likely to pop into their minds when they think of Uruguay is “round” – a reference to the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations 20 years ago. But for those who are in the actual business of trade, including those in the container shipping industry, the first word is likely to be “beef.”
That’s because Uruguay, a country with just 3.3 million people but nearly 11 million cattle, is one of the world’s leading beef exporters.
Frozen beef is its largest export, both to the world at large and to the US, with global sales of $881 million in the first 11 months of this year. Those exports help make the Uruguay-US container trade a relatively balanced market. With 207 shipments of wood from Uruguay, CHEP USA, provider of pallet and container pooling services, tops the list of importers of containerized freight, according to Datamyne figures. Michigan-based Marfood USA, supplier of beef products, is second with a total of 172 shipments.
But the US is a relatively small market for Uruguayan beef. Russia has the biggest appetite by far, buying $288 million of frozen beef, compared with $56 million for the US, out of $862 million in total exports during the first 11 months of 2011. Uruguay notched another $280 million in exports of fresh or chilled beef, with the US buying $12 million. In addition, the US bought $41 million of cooked beef, for a combined total $111 million, nearly half of the $228 million in total imports from Uruguay, according to Datamyne statistics.
One reason why the US is a small market for Uruguayan beef is a 20,000-ton quota on imports of frozen or chilled beef. But only 9,200 tons were purchased as of mid-October, according to Laurie Bryant, executive director of the Meat Import Council of America. Bryant told me that the weak dollar and high prices on the global market make the US a relatively unattractive market.
Besides its importance to the economy, beef may be the first word when Uruguayans think of food: the country has the world’s highest beef consumption per capita, according to the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. It also has the distinction of being the most livable country in Latin America, according to a survey by the London-based Legatum Institute. Transparency International ranks it as the second least corrupt country in the region after Chile. However, Uruguay ranked a middling 90th for ease of doing business in the Doing Business 2012 survey of 183 economies, though that was up from 107th the year before. But it placed a very disappointing 125th in the trade category.
Uruguay is sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina, so it’s no surprise that they are its top trading partners. But trade relations, particularly with Argentina, have been frosty. “Our natural markets are our neighbors, but if they are not open, Uruguay will face very serious problems,” the head of Uruguay’s Chamber of Industries warned in late November.
Protectionism is not the only trade issue facing Uruguay. Another problem is a decline in the cattle herd, now the lowest in over a decade. Consequently, it may not have a sufficient supply to meet domestic and export demand in the years ahead, according to a report in the Mercosur Press.
Growing demand and high prices for live cattle in international markets have contributed to the decline in the herd. Exports of live cattle totaled $138 million in the first 11 months of this year, compared to $147 million in 2010 and $84 million in 2009. The biggest customer is Turkey, which didn’t buy any in 2009, but purchased $110 million of live cattle from Uruguay last year and $101 million through November of 2011.
Bill Armbruster, the anchor for the Datamyne Blog has covered shipping and trade for 30 years as a reporter and editor with The Journal of Commerce and Shipping Digest. “I’ll be blogging on headline news and current issues in oceangoing commerce, trying to shed some light on the backstories and, wherever I can, supply some sound advice for shippers.” Write Bill care of [email protected].
The opinions expressed in this article are those of its author and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views or Descartes Datamyne. In addition, this article is for general information purposes only and it’s not intended to provide legal advice or opinions of any kind and my not be used for professional or commercial purposes. No one should act, or refrain from acting, based solely on this article without first seeking appropriate legal or other professional advice.
Date posted: December 15, 2011