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Expected easing of Japanese restrictions a gift for beef producers

Japan is moving toward easing restrictions on beef imports from the U.S., which would mean an improved market for Idaho beef producers. File photo

A 10-month change in Japanese import policy could mean a windfall for Idaho beef producers.

Decade-long restrictions for U.S. exports of beef to Japan, caused by a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy – called BOE by the industry, but commonly referred to as Mad Cow Disease – have limited beef producer exports into the beef-loving country since 2003.

Since 2005, exporters have been allowed to send beef that was less than 20 months old when it was slaughtered into the country, according to the Idaho State Department of Agriculture’s trade issues report released this year.

The problem with the restriction, said ISDA market development division bureau chief Laura Johnson, is that cows typically need an extra 10 months to grow into a quality beef product.

“The Japanese consumer really likes a marbled, tender beef, and you don’t have any time to fatten them up,” she said.

President Barack Obama’s administration began revisiting the issue in 2010, however, and the Japanese have indicated they are moving toward changing the restriction to allow cattle younger than 30 months old to be imported – placing it in line with common international standards.

On Oct. 22, a Japanese government subcommittee forwarded recommendations that the restrictions be altered. Industry officials say the question is now when, and not if, the Japanese government will make the changes.

Cevin Jones, chairman of the Idaho Beef Council, said the change would significantly increase the values ranchers could get from each cow, not only driving up some demand for various beef cuts, but also allowing more exports of beef  undervalued in the U.S. Cuts like cow tongues and livers aren’t popular domestically, but are considered high-quality meats in Japan.

“When you’re able to export them to Japan, you have values that are 10 times the value to the U.S.,” Jones said. “The Japanese love it. Tongues are worth dog food prices here, pennies a pound. And from what I’ve heard, they’re going seven and a half dollars a pound in Japan.”

Jay Theiler, Agri Beef Co. executive director of marketing, said the change opens up more options for exporters like his company, which is headquartered in Boise. Agri Beef is one of the leading exporters of beef in the region.

He said there are more opportunities to sell both high-quality cuts and cuts that are more valued in Japan with the extra 10 months. If beef producers can’t sell the majority of a cow’s meat at good market prices, it isn’t worth it to send tongues or other cuts to Japan, even if they get a higher value.

“What it does is a lot more cattle will qualify for export, because there is a lot less cattle that are available at that young of age,” Theiler said.

Johnson said the ramifications are significant for beef producers.

“This is a big one. Japan used to be our No. 1 export market,” she said.

Although there are no numbers available for Idaho, overall export figures show Japan imported 385,000 metric tons of beef before the restrictions took effect in 2003. In 2011, the country imported 159,000 metric tons, according to numbers compiled by the Idaho Beef Council. A metric ton is about 2,204 pounds.

“If we had the supply, it could potentially be almost a doubling of exports to Japan,” Jones said.

Idaho is in a geographically convenient place for those exports, as shipping from the northwest is the easiest route from the U.S. to Japan, he said. There are large plants that export to Japan in the region, Jones said, but there is not an easy way to track where the beef comes from in multi-state operations.

Still, he said, “the cattle that goes into those plants, there is a lot of cow that comes out of Idaho.”

Johnson said that although the restrictions have dampened the beef trade with Japan, producers will be ready to immediately open trade communications.

“I think they are very well poised to ramp up and capitalize on this opening,” she said.

Theiler said it is unclear exactly when the change will be made, but industry leaders are hoping for the Japanese to take action in the first quarter of 2013. The process could stretch into the fall, however.

Domestically, prices should not be affected by the change. Beef producers would still get a larger return for their meat, however, as Japan upped demand for the product and caused competition among other export countries like South Korea, Theiler said.

The change will also solve a costly problem for those who are still exporting to Japan. Those exporters must now pay extra to verify the age of their exported beef through United States Department of Agriculture programs. With a 30-month restriction, Jones said, age can be verified just by looking at a cow’s teeth, eliminating the need for extensive paperwork and extra costs.

About Sean Olson

One comment

  1. If you would have started testing for diseased cattle in 2004 the market would have been open for the last 8 years. You instead opted for concealment. The Japanese markets will not change the rules. Every year the rumour goes around that they might open for older cattle and every year they refuse.
    That’s OK everyday we get a step closer to insatant BSE tests and that is going to be a game changer.