California cattle ranchers welcomed news that Japan has further expanded its market to U.S. beef, easing import restrictions that have been in place for nearly a decade.
The change, which took effect on Feb. 1, now allows the United States to export beef from cattle younger than 30 months of age, compared to the previous limit of 20 months. There are still restrictions on ground beef, but they will be phased out after a surveillance period to ensure that the new export protocol is proceeding smoothly.
Japan, the largest Asian market for U.S. beef, suspended American beef imports in December 2003 after a single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy was discovered in a dairy cow in Washington state. It partially reopened its market in July 2006, to allow imports of some U.S. beef from animals 20 months old or younger produced under a special program for Japan.
Kenny Watkins, a cattle rancher from San Joaquin County and first vice president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the new agreement with Japan will be a boon for U.S. ranchers at time when cattle prices are already high. It will also eliminate the need for packers to sort and segregate animals specifically for the Japanese market, which makes for less recordkeeping and paperwork, he said.
Japan is currently the No. 2 market for U.S. beef in terms of value, with exports estimated to top $1 billion in 2012, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation. California's share of the Japanese market was $90 million, according to the California Beef Council.
The federation said it expects U.S. beef exports to Japan will grow 45 percent this year, reaching a value of $1.5 billion, as a result of the increased access to that market.
Before the 2003 ban, Japan was the largest foreign market for U.S. beef, with exports worth $1.4 billion. California exported about $60 million worth of beef to Japan that year, the Beef Council reported.
With Japan further opening its markets, some 90 percent to 98 percent of the state's fed cattle will now be eligible for export, said Beef Council Chairman Mark Lacey, who runs cattle in Inyo and Mono counties. Before Japan raised the age limit, only about 20 percent to 25 percent of the fed cattle in California was eligible at the 20 months or younger requirement, he noted. The new demand will create more value for the state's beef producers and two main processors—Harris Ranch in Coalinga and National Beef Packing Co. in Brawley, he added.