BUENOS AIRES, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Argentina could reclaim a strong presence on dining tables worldwide by exporting up to twice as much beef in the next two years, after the new center-right government cut export taxes and quotas on the red meat, industry groups said.
Exports of world-famous Argentine steaks have tumbled, largely due to the trade controls imposed by the former left-leaning government which designed to keep local butchers well supplied and suppress prices.
A decade ago, Argentina was the world's third biggest beef exporter, with annual shipments of about 771,000 tonnes.
Argentina's Meat Industry and Trade Chamber (Ciccra) estimated beef exports will increase to 300,000 tonnes in 2017 from 200,000 tonnes last year, while the Aacrea association of meat producers forecast 350,000 tonnes. Agriculture consultancy group Tonelli & Associates put the figure at 400,000 tons.
The groups spoke to Reuters last week.
"Argentina is returning to the market," Mario Ravettino, president of the Consortium of Meat Exporters ABC, declared.
Argentina lifted restrictions on beef in the second week of January, a month after center-right Mauricio Macri took office on a platform to liberalize the spluttering economy.
Ricardo Negri, secretary for agriculture, livestock and fisheries said in a telephone interview that Argentina hoped to start shipping beef to the United States and Canada after both lifted their own restrictions on Argentine beef. It would also increase shipments to established markets such as Russia and China, he said.
An increase in exports could prove a boon for foreign meat packers operating in Argentina, including Brazilian firms JBS and Marfrig Global Foods.
"There's a change of mood in the industry," said Miguel Schiariti, president of the meat packers Ciccra chamber. "Expectations are running high, prices are improving and producers are betting on increased activity."
In South America, Argentina lags behind Brazil and its much smaller neighbors Uruguay and Paraguay in beef exports.
Argentina's decline as a meat exporter underlines the impact of former President Cristina Fernandez's protectionist policies since 2008 on the country's external beef trade as farmers switched to cash crops such as soy.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that in 2016 Argentine beef exports will increase 15 percent to 265,000 tonnes.
Victor Tonelli of Tonelli & Associates forecast Argentina's herd would in five years grow to 58 million head of cattle, its highest since 2008, from the current 51.5 million.
Meat industry chamber Ciccra said a dip in the number of heifers slaughtered in December from a year earlier could suggest farmers were taking the first steps toward increasing their cattle stock. (Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Richard Chang)