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Cattle in pens at Beller feedlot near Lindsay, Nebraska, in 2017. 

U.S. beef products are maintaining their popularity in overseas markets despite the ongoing trade uncertainties, the latest export figures show. But the competition is fierce, and the U.S. position will be eroded unless trade agreements are completed in North America and with Japan.

The export news out of South Korea and Japan is encouraging for the moment. Despite major struggles in the South Korean economy, U.S. beef exports to the country have remained on a record sales path. The export value for January through May, at $165 million, was up 15% from a year ago.

Generally positive, too, is the news out of Japan, the No. 1 market for U.S. beef. The members of an 11-nation Pacific-area trade accord now face significantly lower beef tariffs in Japan than do U.S. producers. Yet U.S. beef exports to Japan through May were up 1% in value compared with a year ago.

This strong performance is welcome news for Nebraska’s beef producers, whose annual beef sales top $6 billion, with an estimated total economic impact of $12.1 billion. Iowa has total annual sales of $4 billion with an overall economic impact of $6.8 billion.

An analysis of the Japanese market by the U.S. Meat Export Federation stated: “Despite the tariff disadvantages, U.S. beef’s share of Japan’s imports has held nearly steady this year at 41%, but with a level playing field there are tremendous opportunities for growth. For example, Japan’s imports of Canadian and Mexican beef increased by 76% and 39%, respectively, through May.”

“For Japan to remain in the ‘strong growth’ column, it is essential that we have market access comparable to our key competitors,” says Dan Halstrom, the federation’s president and CEO. The Trump administration and the Japanese government are in negotiations for a trade agreement on agriculture. The sooner an accord can be reached, the better.

The top four export markets for U.S. beef are Japan, South Korea, Mexico and Canada, so it’s no surprise that the beef sector is among a wide range of U.S. industries that have spoken out this month urging congressional approval of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the successor agreement to NAFTA.

“Without USMCA in place, cattlemen and other agricultural producers will continue to face massive uncertainty in two of our largest export markets,” the Colorado Livestock Association said in a statement last week.

The Canadian and Mexican markets have particular importance for U.S. producers, the association explained. Trade with those countries “allows U.S. beef producers to maximize the value of each animal by selling specific products to the highest bidder. For example, Mexican consumers are willing to pay more for beef cuts that are less popular in the U.S. By exporting to Mexico, U.S. producers fetch a higher price for products like tripe, tongue and heart than they would get on the domestic market. No wonder we sold $240 million worth of these products to Mexico last year.”

These market conditions make a strong case for concluding trade negotiations with Japan and signing the new North American trade agreement. With those accords in place, U.S. beef producers should see even stronger sales opportunities abroad.

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