Mexico, Canada and a handful of relatively small countries, including Chile, Dubai and Lebanon, are the only markets open to U.S. beef imports, thanks to continuing concerns regarding the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

But beef cattle producers and industry officials expect lucrative foreign markets in Asia and elsewhere to open up again soon, potentially later this year or early next year.

So it behooves producers who are interested in foreign trade to bring their businesses into compliance with the USDA Beef Export Verification program and to schedule the necessary audits so that they’re ready to participate in additional foreign trade opportunities as soon as they emerge.

“Feeders need to hustle now,” says Rick Majewski, director of international sales and marketing for Brawley Beef LLC in Brawley, Calif., adding that it can take several weeks or longer for USDA to complete the required audits.

“If the market opens at the end of this year, you want to do it safely and comfortably,” he says. And that means taking care of the necessary paperwork and audits beforehand.

USDA’s BEV program sets out the specific product requirements requested by the importing country. It also provides information on USDA’s verification process. The Quality System Assessment program, which is referenced in every BEV program, is the audit program used to verify the specific product requirements  —  in some cases this may include age verification and traceability.

Canada and Australia already have mandatory national animal-identification programs in place, and U.S. producers are increasingly seeing the value of establishing similar programs here.

“Traceability is going to be a huge issue,” says Todd Larimer, international sales manager for Washington Beef LLC, a Toppenish, Wash., subsidiary of Agri Beef Co., the first cattle-feeding company in the nation to secure HACCP and ISO 9001 certifications for its operations.

Indeed, while domestic retailers and foodservice companies increasingly demand verification of any number of beef traits, from genetics to diet, health background and handling practices, relatively few U.S. producers have developed trace-ability systems. This is partly because there has been little financial incentive to do so within the U.S.

But foreign markets offer lucrative sales opportunities for U.S. producers because they often purchase cuts of beef, such as tongues and boneless short ribs, that aren’t as popular here. Foreign sales can therefore complement domestic sales and make domestic cattle-feeding operations more profitable than would otherwise be the case.

“The primary hurdle for U.S. producers is to find a means to ensure that animal age and source information is maintained and transferred through the marketing chain in a manner that can be audited and verified,” says Joan Shaffer, a USDA spokeswoman. “To accomplish this,” she says, “producers must identify the animals in a manner that will permit tracking from birth to harvest.”

Brawley Beef is a case in point. The slaughter and fabrication company, based in southeastern California, tracks all of its animals from ranches in California’s Imperial Valley and southern Arizona. “We process approximately 1,700 head a day, so it’s easy for us to do group age verification,” Mr. Majewski says. “We can trace cattle fairly easily back to the calf ranch and dairy.”

Washington Beef, for its part, has similar tracking capabilities, Mr. Larimer says, adding that the Yakima Valley company plans to integrate more and more of its supplier feedlots into its animal-tracking and identification programs.

Before beef cattle producers can begin to consider marketing their beef overseas, they must participate in an approved USDA Quality System Assessment program, which documents that processes meet program specifications.

The QSA program specifies that beef intended for export is traceable to its point of origin. It also includes requirements to ensure that feedyard personnel are properly trained and that systems are in place to receive ongoing customer feedback so that corrective actions can be taken as needed.

Information is readily available on USDA’s Web site to help beef cattle producers learn about the specific BEV and QSA requirements so they can develop a plan to export the particular beef products to foreign markets that are of interest to them. USDA audits are among the toughest hurdles in this process.

“They’ll want to visit your dairies, your calf ranches, your feedyards,” says Terri Hall, vice president of technical services and QSA manager for Brawley Beef. “They’ll want to review your paperwork to make sure you can do what you say you’re going to do.” Ms. Hall adds that USDA audits typically occur every six months after a company has been accepted into the BEV program.

Self-audits are also required. “You should initiate your own corrective actions when needed and document those,” Ms. Hall says. “When (USDA auditors) do come and review your operations, you must show that you identified any non-conformances, corrected those non-conformances and implemented necessary preventative measures. You must audit your system objectively and effectively for continuous improvements.”

Such requirements are important, she adds, because complaints or problems involving one company could potentially affect the whole industry.

Mr. Larimer, for his part, says U.S. feedyard operators need to take the initiative now to modernize their operations and develop the kinds of tracking and animal-identification capabilities that are already in use in Canada and Australia. “You’ve got to look to the future,” he says, “and not to the way things were done in the past.”

Additional details of the BEV and QSA programs can be found at www.ams.usda.gov/lsg/arc/bev.htm