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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The veterinary service in the Ministry of Agriculture is examining alternative sources for frozen beef to prevent a rise in prices, following a freeze on beef imports from Argentina since late last week when cases of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) were discovered in the country.
Agriculture Minister Ze'ev Boim also instructed the ministry's experts to determine whether there were unaffected regions in Argentina from which beef still may be brought. A response from the Argentine veterinary services was expected by Thursday, the ministry said.
Frozen beef alone totalled just under $66.15 million in 2005, accounting for nearly one-third of food imports and more than 28% of total imports from Argentina to Israel, according to data provided by the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry.
Until Argentina is declared to be free of FMD, the ban on beef imports will continue, which most likely will displace the sourcing of the bulk of frozen beef imports to Argentina's neighbors, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay, said Jos Danor, editor of the Tel Aviv-based monthly Economia y Negocios and economic editor at Israel's Spanish-language weekly newspaper, Aurora.
Danor said beef suppliers in those countries already have business in Israel, and noted that a recent delegation to the country from Paraguay included beef suppliers.
In 2005, Israel imported more than $36.2m. of frozen beef from Brazil; $19.6m. from Uruguay; and $8.6m. from Paraguay, accounting for 15%, 36.9%, and 32.7% of imports, respectively, from each country.
Argentina recently replaced Uruguay as Israel's major supplier over the past year, when Uruguay shifted its export focus to markets paying higher prices for the meat, Danor said.
The crisis comes as officials from the Mercosur trade block - including Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay - arrive in Israel Wednesday (today) for negotiations on a free trade agreement that will likely reduce tariffs on certain Israeli products.
"I assume that [Mercosur member countries] will want to include trade in food items in negotiations," said Liora Hadar, director of the South America desk at the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry. Bilateral trade between Israel and Mercosur totalled about $1.1 billion in 2005, including more than $540m. in Israeli exports.
"Currently the average import duty in the Mercosur block is around 11 percent, but some Israeli products there are paying much more, so it is clear that trade will likely grow once the document takes effect," Danor said last summer when contacts were announced.
Argentine beef is the highest quality from South America, said El Gaucho steak restaurants owner Nahum Stolero, who indicated that he imports most of the meat used in his chain from that country, in addition to Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil.
Though "for now everyone is in the initial panic stage, since it is not clear what areas are affected and why the emergency was declared," the present crisis will likely be resolved soon, Stolero said, citing a similar ban two years ago when cases of the Mad Cow Disease were found in Argentina.
Until kosher supervision in the neighboring countries can be expanded and deliveries sent, prices in Israel will likely rise, Danor predicted.
Even if prices do rise, Stolero said Israel has enough frozen meat in storage to avoid shortages.