What’s up with Panamanian Beef? I hear English-speaking visitors and expatriates bemoaning the flavor and toughness of the local product and they’re absolutely right but why? The history of beef in Central America is distinctly different from that of the rest of the continent because of the area’s tropical environment. Columbus, on his second voyage to Hispaniola now known as the Dominican Republic and Haiti, brought live stock, including pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, pigeons and beefs to the new world. On his third and fourth trips, as was the custom, he dropped livestock on most of the visited islands for future provisioning before he finally reached Panama 10 years after his first landfall. The original beefs from Europe were Bos Taurus, or hump less cows, the genetic bases for our modern Western breeds. Later African slaves, along with their cattle breed called Bos Indicus, were imported as a labor force to the newly developed European agricultural holdings. This humped variety, also called Cebu or Zebu, eventually evolved into the Brahman in the US and the Criollo or Indo-Brazil in South and Central America. These Criollo cattle of Latin America evolved into their own archetypes mainly because they were better suited to the tropical climate having evolved in the like environments of Africa and India and soon replaced the European stock.
The tropical adaptability of the Brahman is manifold it’s short and reflective coat and black skin combine to keep out the sun’s tissue damaging rays. The loose folds of its skin provide greater surface areas for cooling, that along with the animals sweat, also helps to repel insects and parasites. Genetically these beefs developed the abilities to thrive on inadequate food supplies, in varying weather extremes while displaying high fertility rates and posses a great tolerance to the endemic tropical diseases that quickly eliminated the Island European varieties. Livestock holdings in Panama are very small local ranchers who possessing few husbandry techniques and little herd management skill. Droughts or floods further aggravate natural pasturage coarse and low in nutrition from unamended soils. Mineral deficiencies, disease and intestinal parasites are common among small holders and natural insemination with no breeding guidelines is the norm. In fact most of the time these local beefs exist in an almost feral state foraging for themselves which actually produces a healthier albeit much tougher product.
But that’s not the complete answer, even though environment and genetics certainly affect the musculature of the meat, the causative difference between Panamanian and North American beef occurs at the feed lot. US feed lots purchase 600-pound calves then fatten them up with appetite stimulants and high protein diets until they double in size and head for the abattoir. Feedlots proffer a diet of growth hormones, ground soybeans and corn, meat and bone meal, silage for roughage, and the remains of distiller’s processes in addition to exanthan gum, yeast cultures and minerals both organic and manufactured. North Americans want their beefs Rubenesque and their women skinny while in Panama the women are a bit rounder and the beefs thinner. In the US, meat of this “quality” would be graded commercial or standard at best. This lack of marbling and feed additives tends to make the beef here a bit toothier, explaining why much of Panama’s meat is long stewed, often using a pressure cooker.