A U.S. government agriculture official says the United States is close to regaining two of its leading beef export markets - Canada and Mexico - in the wake of December's mad cow disease scare in the northwestern state of Washington. But, some of America's former beef customers in Asia are reluctant to resume imports.
The U.S. Agriculture Department's top economist told a Senate committee that Mexico and Canada may act within days to ease import restrictions on U.S. beef.
Mexico and Canada are the second and fourth largest buyers of U.S. beef. They were among several nations that stopped importing it when a single case of mad cow disease was discovered in a dairy cow in Washington state in December. The animal was in a herd that had been imported from Canada.
Agriculture department economist Keith Collins says U.S. farm officials have apparently been successful in convincing their Mexican and Canadian counterparts that the case was isolated and that strict government safeguards are in place to prevent the spread of mad cow disease.
"I think we're very close with respect to Canada and Mexico. We had good discussions last week in Washington with Canadian and Mexican officials," he said. "The Mexicans are waiting for use to resolve some issues with Canada. We are very close to resolving the issues with Canada. Hopefully, I could say it's a matter of days before we can see some progress with Canada and Mexico."
The December mad cow scare has reduced U.S. beef exports more than 90 percent. Mr. Collins says that if foreign markets do not re-open, beef sales abroad will drop six billion dollars this year.
"Regaining our exports markets is crucial to the prosperity of the U.S. cattle and beef industry and it has been a top priority of the administration," he.said "Administration officials have worked continually to inform our trading partners about the case, the steps we've taken to investigate the situation, and the safeguards we have implemented."
Mr. Collins says the top importer of U.S. beef, Japan, and the third leading buyer, South Korea, are more difficult to persuade. Japan, for example, tests all of its cattle for mad cow disease and insists the United States do the same. But the United States tests only one percent. It focuses only on cattle at highest risk, such as those over 30 months old because the disease takes time to develop. The U.S. agriculture official told the U.S. senators that Japan is reacting the way it has because it has had ten cases of mad cow disease.
"That is a country that saw a very sharp decline in beef consumption in 2001, another sharp decline in 2002 and they are very concerned about the consumer confidence issue," he said. "So they have demanded some very unreasonable things from a scientific point of view. So we have more work to do with the Japanese, and it may well be that the work is done in conjunction with international animal health organizations."
Keith Collins says South Korea tends to follow Japan's lead on this issue.
He points out that the economic news for U.S. beef producers has not been all bad. The sharp drop in exports has been nearly countered by stronger than expected domestic demand. As a result, the drop in cattle prices has been limited, with the average price this year expected to be the second highest in the past 11 years.