Geneva - Argentina on Friday accused the United States of unfairly blocking imports of Argentine beef, ratcheting up trade tensions with its large neighbour to the north.

The South American country is the world's third largest exporter of beef after Brazil and Australia.

But it has been shut out of the United States for years because of restrictions imposed by Washington to block the spread of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle.

“Argentina has notified the WTO (World Trade Organization) Secretariat of a request for consultations with the United States on measures applied to the imports of Argentinian meat and other products of animal origin.

“Argentina claims that the restrictions, applied on sanitary grounds, don't have scientific justification,” the WTO said.

Argentina is seen by many fellow Group of 20 nations as a chronic rule-breaker since it staged the world's biggest sovereign debt default in 2002. It remains locked out of global credit markets and relies on export revenue for hard currency.

President Cristina Fernandez's government has angered trade partners by moving to slash imports and riled historic ally Spain with the takeover of energy company YPF.

A week ago, the United States and Japan filed complaints against Argentina with the WTO, alleging that its import licensing rules are protectionist because they discriminate against foreign goods.

Nkenge Harmon, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative's office in Washington, said the United States was “disappointed” with Argentina's decision to launch the beef case, which appears to be part of larger pattern.

“We are concerned with a disturbing trend in which countries engaged in actions that are inconsistent with their WTO obligations retaliate with counter-complaints rather than fix the underlying problem raised in complaint,” Harmon said.

“Furthermore, the fundamental openness of the U.S. market to agricultural products is reflected in trade data. In 2011, U.S. imports of agricultural products from Argentina topped $1.64 billion. U.S. agricultural exports to Argentina that same year totalled $153 million,” she said.

The European Union brought a complaint against Argentina in May, accusing it of limiting imports.

That drew a tit-for-tat complaint from Buenos Aires in August denouncing a “de facto prohibition on imports of biodiesel from outside the Community”. - Reuters