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Why There's So Much Beef Being Sent Between The U.S. And Mexico


Last year, the U.S. exported roughly 500 million pounds of beef to Mexico. At the same time, the U.S. imported - wait for it - roughly 500 million pounds of beef from Mexico. And despite the U.S. having a huge national herd, it imports almost a million head of live cattle each year from Mexico. So what's with all the cattle traffic? NPR's Jason Beaubien from our Planet Money podcast team went down to the border to find out.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Just west of El Paso, Texas, in a dusty, arid stretch of the New Mexico desert, there are two huge stockyards, one in Mexico and one in the U.S. The rusty border fence slices through the middle of them. Each weekday, 3,000 to 4,000 Mexican cattle pass through here.

WILLIAM WALLACE: This is considered the biggest import-export facility for livestock in North America.

BEAUBIEN: This is William Wallace. He's a fourth-generation cattle rancher, and he's with the group the Chihuahua Cattlemen's Association. They own both the American and the Mexican stockyards here.

WALLACE: What we're seeing right now, you have pens from the east and the west.

BEAUBIEN: The cattle pens push right up against the border fence.

WALLACE: On the east side would be all the cattle coming in from the state of Chihuahua.

BEAUBIEN: Nearly 500,000 cattle each year pass through this one gate, this one big, rusty, sliding gate under the watchful eye of a Customs and Border Protection agent. These calves that were born in Mexico get sent to farms and feedlots in America where it's cheaper to fatten them up on American corn and alfalfa until they're are about 1,300 or 1,400 pounds and ready for slaughter. After that, many parts of them may very well get sent back south of the border again to Mexico, particularly parts like head, stomachs and tails, which have a much higher value south of the border.

ERIKA DE LA O-MEDINA: Oh, this is the best part. Try this.

BEAUBIEN: I'm having lunch with Erika de la O at the El Chaparral restaurant in Juarez. She's telling me about her favorite Mexican delicacies.

DE LA O-MEDINA: The head of the cow - you put it to boil, and you get the cheeks for barbacoa. You get the eyeballs for special gourmet tacos.

BEAUBIEN: She works with the New Mexico Border Authority as a kind of trade representative. She grew up in Chihuahua. She's married to a rancher, and she knows where to find good fried tripe in Juarez. She says, in Mexico, nothing gets wasted.

DE LA O-MEDINA: The cow is utilized 100 percent. You get the tongue. There's also a dish with the oxtail.

BEAUBIEN: All of these delicacies that she's raving about, in the U.S., these are all classified by the government as beef byproducts. Here, they're what's for dinner. Derrell Peel, an agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University, says this is the answer to that question of why millions of pounds of beef would be flowing back and forth in both directions across the U.S.-Mexico border.

DERRELL PEEL: The thing to keep in mind is that beef is not one thing.

BEAUBIEN: Peel says a single beef carcass gets divided up into hundreds of different products, ranging from liver to hamburger to tenderloin. The hide gets sold for leather. The fat gets used in making soap. And Peel says the value of all these various parts of the carcass is different in different markets.

PEEL: There's no reason to assume in any country that consumer preferences are going to exactly match the mix of products that you're going to get every time you process one of these animals.

BEAUBIEN: For instance, in the U.S., beef round is a relatively low-value cut used in pot roast. It's often cut into thin steaks for a dish called milanesa in Mexico.

PEEL: So you add value when you ship that there.

BEAUBIEN: At first, this cross-border beef shuffle seems absurd, but the ranchers on both sides of the border say it's making more money for them and making beef cheaper for everyone. And several of them mentioned that in a time of escalating tensions around the border and trade, they hope it stays that way. Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.