Buenos Aires, Argentina (BBN)-As he prepared to order lunch in one of Buenos Aires’ many steak restaurants, Jorge Bacaloni declared himself unlikely to change his beef-centred diet despite the World Health Organisation’s conclusion that red meats are more carcinogenic than previously thought.
In a report published on Monday, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans”, reports The Guardian.
But in Argentina, which has one of the highest levels of meat consumption in the world, the study was met with skepticism.
“I’m aware of the health risks, but it’s part of our culture,” said Bacaloni, who estimates that he eats between a kilogram and 1.5kgs of meat each week.
Most of that is from cattle, putting Bacaloni around the average in Argentina, where consumption per capita was 59.4kg of beef in 2014.
As well as the pure pleasure of home grills and estraña dishes in beef houses, the lawyer said that it was a custom.
“This is part of our history. Part of our life,” he says. “And at least cows in Argentina are raised on pastures rather than in sheds. It’s more natural.”
But he was more concerned for his family that the World Health Organisation had classified processed meat in the same cancer-risk category as cigarettes, alcohol and asbestos.
“I have a three-year-old son. We’ve been giving him sausage, but I’ll stop that,” he said.
He too is adjusting his diet, though for different reasons. “I’ll have chicken today, but only because I’m on a diet.”
Fashion designer Marcela Duhalde laughs when she explains how often she eats steak.
“l hate cooking so when I have to make food I always choose a T-bone steak and tomatoes because it’s easy and delicious. I have it maybe four or five times a week,” she says.“I ought to be huge.”
Raised on a farm, she says eating meat is a custom. “My family was very carnivorous. If we didn’t have meat, we didn’t consider it a meal.”
This is a common refrain.
The first cattle were introduced by the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century and they soon became a feature on the pampas – the vast grasslands that stretch across much of the country – while their meat was an integral part of the gaucho “cowboy” culture.
Duhalde says she is concerned about the agrochemicals, antibiotics, tainted cattle feed and the generally poor conditions that many cattle are kept in, but vegetarianism is not option. Nor it seems is cutting back.
“Everything I like is unhealthy – steak, alcohol, drugs and other things. I’d rather die than give it all up. I don’t have the energy to be happy without them.”
She didn’t expect the WHO decision to make much of an impact on Argentina’s love of steaks in the short term, but she thought it could make a difference in the distant future if the evidence mounted up and led to the same sort of health campaigns that are now common with tobacco.
“This makes us start thinking about the risks, but there is a big distance between thinking about things and actually changing our habits.”
For Boris Katunaric, the only problem he has with beef is that he cannot get enough.
As a young journalist, he doesn’t earn a high enough salary to buy it as often as he would like.
“I love steak. All kinds of steak. I know there are risks but I always feel better when I eat beef. It gives me energy and makes my mind work,” he says.
“If I had the money, I would eat it every day.
He learned about the WHO announcement from posts on his friends’ Facebook pages, but despite the global chatter, he says the risks should not be overstated.
“We need to consider this calmly,” he said. “I have not intention of changing because I love meat so much. Even if there are risks, I would continue. It’s like smoking and drinking. It’s rock’n’roll.”
But rising beef prices have made an impact.
Katunaric reluctantly eats chicken instead to save money.
He’s not alone. Cost, obesity concerns and changing farming priorities are undermining Argentina’s title as the king of beef.
The country is no longer in the world’s top five beef-producing countries and its appetite for beef has actually fallen by almost half compared to 50 years ago and is now challenged by Hong Kong, Uruguay and Luxembourg.
But Katunaric says it is still central to Argentinian life. “It is part of popular culture.
A grill is a reason for get-togethers of families and friends. It’s a beautiful thing.”