Red meat prices in Chile have been falling for almost two decades, with 1999 prices down by 38% in real terms from 1980, industry sources reported in early December. In terms of specific cuts, sirloin has fallen 13.3%, rounds by 28.2% and ground meat has dropped 46.3%.

Andres Allende, president of the agro-industry Lo Valledor, said the sustained decline is largely due to increasing imports, which have risen from 5.7% of consumption in 1991 to 38% this year. The imports come primarily from neighboring countries, which maintain far larger livestock herds.

According to estimates by the government's Office of Agricultural Studies and Policy (Odepa), Chile will import some 90,000 tons of red meat this year, roughly one-third of the national consumption.

Another cause for the price decrease, according to Allende, is the "mad cow" disease scare in Europe, causing Argentina (a major EU supplier) to lower its prices and thereby forcing prices down in Chile.

Finally, competition in the meat sector has increased, with the rising popularity of poultry and pork products.

Still, the consumption of red meat far outstrips its competitors however and will hit record levels this year.  According to Odepa, per capita consumption of red meat will be 67.6kg this year.  By contrast, poultry consumption is expected at 27kg per person, while pork consumption will reach 16.5kg per person.

 By Steve Anderson, just-food.com correspondent