Market access issues and an oversupply of domestic product in key markets kept U.S. beef exports at sluggish levels during April. However, the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) says several of America’s leading trading partners showed positive signs in April. With exports up sharply in April, Japan regained its position as the top market for U.S. beef, the first time in that spot since 2003. At the same time, Hong Kong maintained its rapid growth pace, and Taiwan continued its rebound from beta agonist-related issues that slowed exports last year.

The U.S. beef industry continues to capitalize on its recently expanded access to Japan. With April exports more than doubling last year’s performance, exports to Japan moved 49 percent higher in volume (59,969 metric tons) and 44 percent higher in value ($382.3 million) for the year. This made Japan the leading destination for U.S. beef in both volume and value, overtaking Canada. “Many observers felt USMEF’s growth projections for Japan were overly bullish,” USMEF president and CEO Philip Seng said. “But we were keenly aware of the unmet demand from existing buyers and the opportunities to secure new business once we had a wider supply available.

This shows once again the importance of having experienced staff on the ground who know how to direct marketing resources in a way that will maximize results.”

While the boost in exports to Japan is encouraging, Seng cautioned that Japan has a safeguard in place that will boost tariffs if beef import volumes rise too quickly This safeguard, which was utilized by Japan in 2003 under similar circumstances, remains an important consideration for U.S. exporters and Japanese importers.

April beef export volume of 86,433 metric tons was down 9 percent from a year ago and export value was down 7 percent to $434.8 million. For January through April, beef exports were 2 percent higher in value ($1.75 billion) despite a 5 percent decline in volume (343,020 metric tons).

Russia’s suspension of imports of U.S. beef and pork, which officially closed the market Feb. 11, continues to hamper overall performance. USMEF estimates this trade impasse, which is related to Russia’s enforcement of a zero-tolerance policy for beta agonist use, has cost the U.S. industry about $97 million in beef export value and $58 million in pork export value so far in 2013.

“Along with our lack of access to sell beef in mainland China, this is the biggest barrier we face in terms of market access,” Seng said. Through April, beef exports equated to 9 percent of U.S. muscle-cut production and 12 percent including variety meat — down from last year’s ratios of 9.6 percent and 12.7 percent, respectively. Export value equated to $217.54 per head of fed slaughter, up 3 percent from the same period last year.