When a case of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) was discovered in the U.S. cattle herd in December 2003, China along with about a hundred other countries banned imports of U.S. beef.  In the ensuing years, the U.S. government was able to work out a new arrangement with most of those countries except China and a few others.  In 2003, China imported almost no beef; in 2015 they are expected to import 500,000 metric tons (MT), 6.4 percent of world trade, according to projections by the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) of USDA.  Chinese officials have previously talked of beef imports growing to 1.0 million metric ton (MMT) per year.

The Chinese import ban of U.S. beef is not the result of a lack of trying by USDA.  Repeated efforts have been made to work out differences consistent with each side’s WTO sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) commitments.  The U.S. government has repeatedly provided China with extensive technical information on BSE-related surveillance and mitigation measures recognized by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) for food safety and animal health.  China still has not provided scientific justification for continuing its ban.

In May 2013, the U.S. received the lowest risk status, negligible risk, the same as China, for BSE from the OIE.  When the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade Agriculture and SPS Working Groups met in November 2013, they agreed on a round of technical engagement in December 2013, which did not lead to a resolution.  They then agreed to continue their discussions with the shared goal of achieving market access for U.S. beef products by July 2014.  Further discussions were held in 2014, but did not lead to more market access.  China’s requirements remained inconsistent with OIE guidelines and continue to contrast sharply with U.S. requirements.

Unofficial sources have indicated that the last time the U.S. and Chinese government officials met on beef market access, the major issue was China’s requirement that the U.S. identify at the point of slaughter the birthplace of every animal for beef exported to China.  This could be another delaying tactic by Chinese officials, but they do have food safety concerns partly driven by their own domestic experience.  If the Chinese are planning to expand beef imports to 1.0 MMT per year, it would be to their advantage to have access to U.S. export supplies estimated by FAS at 1.1 MMT in 2015, the world’s fourth largest export supplier.

The U.S. beef industry has taken the tracing issue seriously.  In early May, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the U.S. Meat Export Federation and the North American Meat Institute sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman stating, “Together, we have agreed to implement a traceability system for beef exports to China which will provide the basis for the U.S. government to certify to China’s requirement for traceability from farm of birth.”  They propose to use existing identification programs that permit the identification of the birth premise such as the APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of USDA) National Uniform Eartagging System and the brucellosis ear tag system.

The letter goes on to say all participation in the program would be voluntary.  The beef industry has struggled in previous years with independent cattle ranchers concerned about costs and the federal government’s oversight of a mandatory identification system.  This program fits with the concept that value chains will voluntarily align to meet the needs of specific customers.

The authors also see this traceability system including “current and future programs that could be developed and managed by private companies under verification programs like the Process Verified Program (PVPs) managed by the Agricultural Marketing System (AMS) of the USDA.”  This should provide maximum flexibility to respond to customer needs.  Many in the industry agree that private companies generally do a good job of managing source verification programs.

APHIS of USDA would have access to the full information on traceability in the event of an animal health incident.

The traceability issue in export markets goes far beyond China.  Phil Seng, president and CEO of the U.S. Meat Export Federation, speaking at a conference in late April said, “Competition in the international market is fierce.  Are our production practices out of sync with the international market (in terms of traceability, antibiotics, etc.)? As more countries are meeting the costs of admission into these markets, it makes it even more difficult on us.”  He said 71 countries are exporting beef to China and meeting the traceability requirement.  Seng explained that 26 countries are trying to ship pork to Japan and almost as many to Korea. He concluded, “We can’t afford to not cooperate, and I think in the future how well we cooperate is our ability to compete.”

Kansas State University Agricultural Economics Associate Professor Glynn Tonsor is quoted in a Meatingplace magazine article on tracing, “K-State’s Tonsor sees a producer community segmented three ways: Roughly a third of cow-calf producers already follow best practices for individual animal ID or are open to it.  A middle third of producers could be persuaded to practice ID.  The remaining third of producers, the smallest ones — with fewer than 25 cows in some cases — is “incredibly resistant” to animal ID, he says.”

The situation is further complicated by the need to get most producers into a birth-to-market tracing program because some beef items, like hides and livers, are mostly exported.

Somewhere in all of these interests is a “sweet spot” where most U.S. beef producers would voluntarily join a value chain that has a minimally invasive tracing system that provides the assurances sought by importers.  The market will require it. 

Ross Korves is a Trade and Economic Policy Analyst with Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade and @World_Farmers on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.