U.S. beef exports gradually expand after mad cow scare

Beef has long been a quintessential American staple, captured decades ago in the marketing slogan “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.”

These days, however, more and more of the red meat is making its way from farms in the United States to tables in numerous countries abroad, where many diets are incorporating more beef.

One of the biggest increases has been in Hong Kong, one of two regions that are part of China but have separate trade policies.

According to U.S. Meat Export Federation data, Hong Kong’s imports of U.S. beef have been steadily climbing since 2004, after a mad-cow disease scare in 2003 settled down. The value of U.S. beef exports to Hong Kong has doubled since 2010, up to $331 million from $155 million. The number was only $198,000 in 2004.

As for mainland China, U.S. beef has been banned there since the mad cow scare, although there are signs that might end. If it does, that represents a major reopened market – and many new opportunities – for U.S. beef farmers.

At technical trade talks in Beijing in December, Chinese officials promised to ease restrictions on beef from the U.S. in 2014.

The recent spikes in Chinese demand for beef are due to a few factors. According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report, one reason is food-safety incidents with Chinese poultry and pork, which pushed consumers toward preferring beef.

This growing hunger for beef can also be attributed to changing diets among the Chinese, according to Steve Kelly of the Kansas Department of Commerce. Advertisements for beef – particularly for fast-food establishments such as McDonald’s – have made their way abroad, according to Judith Farquhar, a University of Chicago professor of anthropology.

There may be parents who see the beef advertising and say, “ ‘Well, I’m going to raise my child to be big and strong like Michael Jordan,’ ” Farquhar said.

China’s cultural appetite for beef was whetted long before McDonald’s took root, however. During times of famine, meat was in very short supply, leading people to idealize and crave it, Farquhar said.

A keenness for beef over other meats in China took awhile to catch on, however, as food is usually served there with chopsticks or spoons – not steak knives.

“The concept of serving a large piece of meat, I think, in early years struck many Chinese as odd,” said Sheree Willis, the executive director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Kansas. “Twenty years ago they were shocked; now they’ll ask for it.”

However, consuming large quantities of beef, and eating beef altogether, was – and in some cases still is – looked down on.

In the early 1900s, Farquhar said, “there was a kind of popular Buddhist voice that was saying, ‘There’s something barbaric about these foreigners. What is this savage appetite for meat?’ ”

More recently, a neo-Buddhist culture that shuns meat and embraces vegetarianism has developed, according to Farquhar. But it hasn’t been enough to stop the growth of beef imports.

The increase in American beef exports has raised beef farmers’ prices across the U.S. and is linked to a hike in demand in areas such as Hong Kong, according to Joe Schuele of the U.S. Meat Export Federation. Many farmers have seen their prices nearly double in recent years.

For example, Donn Teske, the president of the Kansas Farmers Union, who raises cattle, said that in the last few years a calf would bring $500 at auction. Now they’re bringing $750 to 1,000 apiece.

“We’ve had cattle on this operation for five generations and we’ve never seen prices like they are right now,” Teske said

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune