Despite health risks, red meat a hallmark of Argentine culture

By Ro Marti  |  May 29, 2013 at 5:34 PM
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BUENOS AIRES (GPI)-- Blood stains the white apron covering Javier Aleman’s body as he carries giant slabs of beef hanging from a hook out of the walk-in refrigerator at his butcher shop. Aleman is the owner of a butcher shop located just three blocks from the seat of the national government in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital. He sells meat for eight hours to 20 hours a day with little rest. The line of customers grows longer around noon and as evening falls because it is customary to eat meat for lunch and dinner. Sometimes, so many customers accumulate in Aleman’s shop that he stays open until 10 p.m. “The Argentine eats a lot of meat,” says Aleman, who typically sells four cows a week. “Here, there are three butcher shops every two blocks.” Aleman deposits a piece of meat on the counter. While he sinks his knife into it, he chats with customers about politics, the economy and the weather. The butcher shop looks like a bar where a group of friends have gathered to chat. Everyone calls Aleman “El Salteño,” alluding to his birthplace in the northwestern province of Salta. A neighbor passes by on the sidewalk and yells: “Hey! Salteño, how are you?” “Incredible!” answers Aleman, still moving his knife while never ceasing to smile. Aleman says he loves this job, which he has been doing his whole life, and cannot imagine doing anything else. He says that he is more than a butcher. He knows his clients, their preferences and even the intimacies of many of their home lives. “Being a butcher leads you to know behind the curtains of the homes of your customers,” he says. “You find out whom they love more, on what holiday they get together more, what birthday congregates more family members.” Red meat is part of the daily diet of Argentines and occupies a central role in family gatherings and social events. Argentines spend about 10 percent of their salaries on red meat. Although international studies increasingly link red meat to cancer and heart disease, local experts highlight the nutritional value of lean meat in moderation. A 2012 study by the Harvard School of Public Health associated the consumption of red meat with an increased risk of death from cancer and cardiovascular diseases. One daily serving of unprocessed red meat corresponded with a 13-percent increase in the risk of mortality, and one daily serving of processed red meat corresponded with a 20-percent increased risk. In Argentina, cardiovascular diseases and cancer are the No. 1 and No. 2 leading causes of death, according to the U.S. National Cancer Institute. Argentina has the second-highest rate of cancer in Latin America and ranks 46th in the world, according to rankings by World Cancer Research Fund International based on 2008 information from the World Health Organization. But red meat continues to play a central role in Argentine culture and family life. The average annual consumption of red meat per person in Argentina in 2012 was 60 kilograms (130 pounds), according to the Instituto de Promoción de la Carne Vacuna Argentina, a public institution founded by members of the industry. Aleman says his family eats almost 4 pounds of red meat per day. “In my house, a lot of red meat is eaten,” says Aleman, a father of two children, 8 and 13. “My kids, my wife and I eat a lot of meat, almost 2 kilograms of meat per day.” For lunch, he eats beef tenderloin, a hamburger or a “milanesa” sandwich, which comprises a breaded cutlet of finely cut beef. Dinner is usually milanesa or steak. The consumption of meat increases on the weekends, when Argentines gather to eat “asado,” or barbecue, Aleman says. They cook different cuts of meat on the grill as well as other meat products, including chorizo and blood sausage, and different parts of the cow, such as the intestines. Asados in Argentina are synonymous with gatherings of family and friends. In important social events, it is common to barbecue ribs on the grill.

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