India's economy and exports may be waning compared with a year ago, but there is one sector still experiencing big growth – exports of beef in the form of water buffalo meat.
Indian beef exports are set to rise to 1.525 million metric tons this year, up from 609 million metric tons in 2009, outstripping Australia, which is expected to ship 1.425 million metric tons in 2012 and Brazil, with 1.35 million, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures.
The huge rise in volume of water buffalo beef exports has led to concerns in India that some cow meat is also being exported. Cows are considered holy by India’s Hindu majority and their slaughter is punishable by jail in some states.
“India is forecast to become the world’s leading beef exporter in 2012 due to an expanding dairy herd, efficiency improvements, increased slaughter and price-competitiveness in the international market particularly vis a vis Brazil,” the USDA said in a report.
While consumption of beef is static or declining in many developed economies in line with shrinking herds, demand for bovine meat – including cattle and buffalo – is increasing in Asia, the Middle East and South America.
Global demand is forecast to rise 24 percent by 2020 from 64.5 million metric tons in 2011, according to Meat & Livestock Australia, an industry lobby group.
“India is really filling an important void in the market,” says David Nelson, global strategist at Rabobank, a leading agribusiness lender. “The big picture is that beef production is under pressure virtually everywhere [else] in the world as land that has been in beef pasture is finding a higher and better use.”
India has nearly tripled its shipments overseas of buffalo meat in recent years. There are more than 4,000 municipal slaughter houses and 30 state-of-the-art abattoirs.
Rashid Kadimi, chief executive of Allana and Sons, India’s largest meat exporter by revenues, says the country’s main food processing groups have been expanding at Brazil’s cost in the Middle East, where they export mainly halal beef, a cut of meat consumed by devout Muslims.
The other key market for Indian beef is Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam.
The rise of Indian producers comes as premium meatpackers, such as Brazil’s JBS, which has extensive operations in the U.S., and Tyson Foods , are facing tighter margins in the North American market. JBS is also fighting allegations from environmental group Greenpeace that it sources meat from illegal ranchers in the Amazon. It threatened legal action against Greenpeace last week after UK-based supermarket chain Tesco said it would not source any more meat from JBS.
The Indian export boom is hitting supply for the domestic market, where a sizeable Muslim and Christian minority as well as some lower caste Hindus, consume about 2 million metric tons of bovine meat a year.
“I’m finding it hard to stay in the business – everything goes for export,” said Islam Qureshi, a wholesale buffalo meat vendor at Crawford Market, a bazaar designed by the father of novelist Rudyard Kipling.
“These days everything is going to Russia, China, Muscat and Malaysia...?we get whatever is left over,” he said as his colleagues were butchering the last carcass of the day.