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Where's the beef? Argentine ranchers stake hopes on more of it going to China

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The Liniers cattle market in Buenos Aires. China is looking to diversify its protein supply, while Argentina is looking to get out of a deep recession and swirling debt crisis ahead of elections in October.

Buenos Aires

CATTLE ranchers in Argentina, which recently edged out neighbour 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 meat plants, 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.

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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 US$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 per cent, slightly ahead of Brazil's 21.03 per cent.

That volume was a jump of 129 per cent 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.

An Argentine trade delegation is currently in China meeting 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 travelled to Argentina to visit local meat plants.

"The Chinese were there last week in Buenos Aires, they were doing inspections and made good progress," he said.

The progress comes even as China granted export licences 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 an Argentine firm last week during the delegation's visit. He declined to name the firm, which had met China customs officials, but said it had already been approved for exports and was seeking further plant approvals. REUTERS