* Argentina’s inflation rate seen above 20 pct this year
* Beef prices soar out of reach for many consumers
* Mobile haddock stations popular in poor neighborhoods (Recasts; adds regional context)
By Hugh Bronstein
ITUZAINGO, Argentina, March 22 (Reuters) - While most countries use fiscal and monetary policies to control inflation, Argentina has rolled out a fleet of fish trucks to ease the pain of consumers whose food bills are increasing every month.
The government’s latest bid to confront rising prices consists of about a dozen mobile fishmongers selling cheap haddock in poor neighborhoods near the capital, Buenos Aires.
Trucks decorated with blue waves and the slogan: “Now There’s Fish for Everyone” are pulling up beside local parks. They have been greeted by thousands of people, who stand in long lines to take advantage of steep discounts.
Argentines are the world’s biggest consumers of beef and many profess to not liking fish. But with beef prices up 30 percent over the last three months alone and the subsidized haddock selling at around half the normal price, the fish is hard to refuse.
Under cloudy skies, hundreds flock toward the trucks as they roll into Ituzaingo, on the western edge of Buenos Aires, where many families can no longer afford steak.
There are grumbles about the quality of the fish, which is presented in brick-like squares, and complaints about having to wait for hours as around 5,000 people line up over the course of the day.
“It has a weird color, but what do I know?” one woman told reporters upon receiving her portion.
President Cristina Fernandez launched the dozen or so trucks and visited one herself to buy some fish. It was the latest in a series of her administration’s improvised attempts at controlling inflation, which is casting a shadow over a tentative recovery in Latin America’s third largest economy.
Opponents say the haddock program will not work and call it a gimmick meant to shore up Fernandez’s support in towns around the capital where she has traditionally been strong.
Her policies are geared toward stimulating economic growth, which is expected to pick up this year after being constrained in 2009 by the global economic crisis. But high inflation is taking a toll on Fernandez’s popularity.
Economists expect Argentina to close 2010 with consumer prices up more than 20 percent for the year. The government, accused by analysts of manipulating economic data, will likely report much less than that.
But labor unions here are already demanding wage increases of 25 percent.
Earlier government strategies aimed at forcing prices down included export curbs on cattle ranchers and attempts at negotiating cheaper beef prices with meatpackers and supermarket chains.
As local consumer prices soar, Argentina’s growth has lagged that of other major economies in the region.
The country’s 2010 budget proposal forecasts gross domestic product to expand by 2.5 percent during full-year 2010. That compares to official forecasts for 6 percent growth in Brazil and 3.9 percent in Mexico.
Rather than openly acknowledge inflation, Argentine officials refer vaguely to a “reaccommodation of prices.” Fernandez rejects orthodox ways to fight inflation on grounds they would stifle growth.
Wall Street has accuses the government of playing semantic games rather than confronting the problem with measures such as reducing government spending, which Fernandez refuses to do.
“If they want less spending, let them come and govern,” she said recently in a challenge to opposition politicians getting ready for the 2011 presidential election.
The fish trucks were mobilized last week and are scheduled to continue until Easter.
During the period of Lent, the weeks of repentance leading up to Easter, fish consumption rises in the mostly Roman Catholic country.
“The program is good but very slow,” Alicia Carrasco, a bespectacled, middle-aged woman said as she waited for a numbered ticket to allow her to go stand in the haddock line.
“It’s half price,” Eduardo Baumtrog, leaving the station with two white plastic bags full of frozen fillets, said with a weary smile. “Lets see what it tastes like.”