This is how the cattle paradise must be: lush green meadows wherever you look, clear waters in between. Trees provide shade to the animals, friendly vaqueros , mounted shepherds accompany them. With these images, the InstitutoNacional de Carnes, Uruguay's authority for the control of meat production, advertises beef from their own country. "Uruguayan meat - from nature on the table" is the name of the image video distributed on YouTube. 

Uruguayan beef is also sold in Germany; Supermarkets and steak restaurants market it as particularly high-quality, tender meat from pasture cattle. The animals are by no means just grazing in the meadow. There is enough pasture in Uruguay's pampas and the animals can be outdoors all year round in the subtropical climate. Nevertheless, around a fifth of the cattle also receive concentrate feed at feeding places. It is a fattening method that animal rights activists criticize. 

Photos of the animal protection organization AnimalWelfare Foundation, which were taken between 2016 and 2018, show hundreds of animals crammed into a small square meter. Some are up to the ankles in mud or excrement. Others are so overweight that they can no longer make it to the waterhole on their own. An activist from the local association For the Animals Uruguay, who observes Uruguayan feedlots together with Animal Welfare and the Tierschutzbund Zürich, says: "This is no exception, it is commonplace. The solution lies in the countries that import the meat."  

Because one of the main reasons why feedlots exist in Uruguay is in the European Union. But now she is changing her rules. The background is the trade dispute with the United States. For the cattle breeders in Uruguay, a lot depends on the decision in Brussels.  

45,000 tons of duty free

EU overseas suppliers are currently guaranteeing an annual quota for duty-free import. This is a total of 45,000 tons of beef that Uruguay shares with the United States, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. So far, Uruguay has received an impressive quota of 15,000 tons. But now, under pressure from the USA, a new regulation is pending: The EU plans to increase the US quota to 35,000 tonnes within seven years - with a constant total quantity. A distribution struggle is imminent between the other countries. Its outcome will also determine which way cattle farmers in Uruguay take.  

Uruguay is actually considered a model country for animal husbandry. Hormones and antibiotics have been banned in cattle for 40 years and continue to be so today. The fact that doubts about animal welfare now arise has a lot to do with the EU rules. Since 2012, the duty-free import of meat has only been possible under one condition: the cattle must have received concentrated feed at least 100 days before the slaughter. And that happens in feedlots. The background to the EU customs relief at the time was also a trade dispute with the USA. To settle it, Brussels had made it easier to import feedlot meat. The method of keeping is particularly common in the United States. A few hundred to 200,000 animals live there on up to 200 hectares of fenced-in fattening places.

High price advantage

For reasons of competition, the EU then had to open its feedlot quota for other countries (see info box). So there was an immense incentive to introduce this fattening method in Uruguay. The price advantage is high: the EU levies a duty of 20 to 45 percent on meat from pure pasture husbandry. If one calculates with a hypothetical net price of 25 euros per kilo, this corresponds to a surcharge of sometimes more than ten euros. 

The price signal from Europe changed a lot in Uruguay. Until then, pure pasture keeping was the order of the day, feedlot farms also emerged in Uruguay, albeit smaller than in the United States, where concentrate feed such as corn or soy is mostly available for three to four months. The aim of the fattening farms: as much weight as possible in a short time. 2.4 million animals are kept in feedlots in Uruguay.

The farmer Rocío Bertoletti © Carolin Jackermeier for ZEIT ONLINE

The farmer Rocío Bertoletti has also set up to operate in this way. In rubber boots, sun hat and T-shirt, the 50-year-old drags one canister after the other in the feedlot to the drinking point and refills water for her cattle. At 38 degrees it is a must. In four months of the year, the average high temperature in the area is over 25 degrees. In 2009, near the coastal town of Carmelo in southwest Uruguay, Bertoletti and her husband fulfilled their dream of a small cattle farm with three employees. Five years later, she decided to feed cattle in feedlots. "I don't see anything bad about keeping the animals that way," she says. They are well, they have food that they like to eat. Bertoletti grows corn and soybeans himself. It is better than dried grass, she says.