U.S. Beef Industry Leaders Gather in Denver with an Eye on China

United States beef industry leaders say they’re confident longstanding Chinese restrictions on imports of U.S. beef will be lifted within the next few months.

Talks between the governments of the two countries are ongoing over Chinese concerns about the safety of American beef after four isolated cases of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, 0r mad cow disease, were detected beginning in 2003. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a release that the last case was confirmed by the Department of Agriculture in 2012.

Access to China was a front-and-center issue last wee at the 2013 Cattle Industry Summer Conference in Denver.

“Our attention is very much focused on China,” said Thad Lively, senior vice president of trade access for the U.S. Meat Export Federation. “We are hopeful that an agreement can be reached by the second part of this year to get U.S. beef back into the Chinese market.”

But supplying the Chinese market has challenges for U.S. beef producers.

Much of the talk in Denver was about how to meet Chinese demand during a major decline in America’s cattle herd as a severe drought withers feed crops in western states, including Colorado, Texas and Wyoming.

“Our prices are up now,” said Lively. “It’s a supply response because of the drought and some other factors. Our herd is the smallest it’s been since the early 1950s.”

Price pressures mean the United States is at a disadvantage in competing with nations that have been supplying China for years. Australia, for example, is exporting record volumes of beef to China at lower prices.

“There is a ceiling for every market and every consumer in the world,” said Lively, “when they start to say, ‘Can we continue to pay this price for this product?'”

Kent Bacus, associate director of legislative affairs at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said work remained to be done to convince Chinese authorities the U.S. herd is free of mad cow disease. “The U.S. beef industry has taken great strides to make sure we have all the interlocking safeguards in place to make sure that we don’t have any more of those occurrences,” said Bacus.

The U.S. already exports beef to several Asian nations, including Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. But with China’s growing appetite for red meat, the Chinese market remains the ultimate prize for America’s beef producers.

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