By Hugh Bronstein and Cassandra Garrison
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina is on the verge of signing a deal with the United States that would allow two-way trade of fresh beef for the first time in nearly two decades, the South American country's international trade secretary, Marisa Bircher, told Reuters.
The agreement, expected to be signed within days, would simultaneously open beef imports to both countries, Bircher said in an interview.
"We are negotiating the reopening to happen over the days ahead," she said. "All the technical and administrative questions have been settled."
At a time when the country is seeking to boost beef sales abroad, the agreement would allow Argentina to show other prospective buyers that its meat is healthy enough to enter a country with some of the world's toughest sanitary protocols.
The deal would also open a new market for the U.S. cattle sector, although demand for U.S. beef is low in Argentina. The country is famous for its quality steaks, some tender enough to be cut with a spoon as demonstrated with a flourish by waiters in the iconic steak houses of Buenos Aires.
Argentina will have a 20,000 tonne limit on its exports to the United States, Bircher said, while there will be no limit on U.S. beef going to Argentina.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Trade Representative's Office in Washington, and the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires did not respond to requests for comment.
Bircher said Argentina stopped exporting beef to the United States about 17 years ago due to U.S. concerns about Argentine cattle being contaminated by foot-and-mouth disease.
"We have eliminated that through a vaccine programme in our livestock sector," she said.
Another senior Argentine official, speaking on background, confirmed that Argentina and the United States were "close" to a deal. The last time the United States sent fresh beef to Argentina was in 1999, according to Argentina's official statistics agency.
Once one of the world's top five beef suppliers, Argentina was hobbled under the anti-farm policies of the country's previous president, Cristina Fernandez. The country fell off the top 10 list of beef exporters during her eight-year presidency.
It is back in the top 10, according to USDA data and could get into the top five next year thanks to the free market policies of President Mauricio Macri and a sharp weakening of the local peso currency this year.
It's a delicate time for the world food system. Traditional trade routes of grains and oilseeds have been interrupted by a trade war between Washington and Beijing. The world's two biggest economies are now looking for new commercial partnerships to strengthen their positions.
to bolster their positions in their trade war.
A U.S. beef deal with Argentina could provide a glimmer of good news for U.S. farmers after weeks of bearish trade war headlines.
(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein and Cassandra Garrison; Additional reporting by Maximilian Heath and Gabriel Burin; Editing by Ross Colvin)