China, potentially the largest market for beef in the world, has banned most U.S. beef imports since the BSE scare in 2003. That could change soon, according to statements this week from China’s Premier Li Keqiang, reported in the Wall Street Journal, and from the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF).

“We also recognize that the United States has very good beef, so why should we deny Chinese customers this choice?” Mr. Li said, while speaking to U.S. business groups in New York.

Following that statement, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, announced on Sept. 22 that China’s ban on imports of U.S. beef has been lifted. “While this is an important first step in the process of resuming beef exports to China, USMEF understands that China must still negotiate with USDA the conditions that will apply to U.S. beef exports entering this market,” says Philip M. Seng, USMEF president and CEO. “USMEF looks forward to learning more details about the remaining steps necessary for the market to officially open and for U.S. suppliers to begin shipping product.”

According to figures from the U.S. Meat Export Federation, annual per-capita consumption of beef in China currently is around 7 pounds, compared to about 55 pounds in the United States. As China’s middle class continues to expand, beef consumption potentially could grow dramatically, and if it tripled to 21 pounds per person per year, could account for virtually all the beef produced in the United States.

The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) currently lists the United States as having “negligible risk” for BSE, its lowest-risk category. Since 2003, most of our export partners have resumed trade for U.S. beef, typically with restrictions on certain cuts or tissues considered “specific risk materials” for transmission of BSE. 

Analysts generally believe that access to the Chinese market for U.S. beef could significantly boost cattle prices for American producers.