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U.S. beef exports soared to record levels in 2018 thanks to exports to Asia, but it wasn't sales to China that drove the growth.
"We just regained access to China in the middle of 2017, so about a year later we got slapped with a higher tariff rate," said Joe Schuele, a spokesman for the U.S. Meat Export Federation, a trade group. "China is still the fastest-growing beef market in the world, and we feel there's a lot of potential there, but a lot of obstacles keep it from being a major market for us at this time."
A 14-year ban on U.S. beef entering China ended in 2017, with the U.S. beef industry hoping it would be able to capture a large share of the growing Chinese beef market. But so far the exports have been disappointing, and the trade war with Beijing hasn't helped. China shut its market to American beef producers after a case of mad cow disease was detected in the U.S. in late 2003.
According to the USMEF, exports last year soared to $8.33 billion, shattering the previous year's record by more than $1 billion and representing a 15 percent increase in dollar terms. South Korea accounted for more than half of the total increase, as red-meat consumption continues to rise there.
"Korea definitely was the shining star, but we also had a good year in Japan, Taiwan, Southeast Asia and in the Western Hemisphere markets such as Mexico," said Schuele. The tariff rate for U.S. beef going into South Korea is nearly 19 percent, while competitors supplying the market, such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, face higher duties.
On a volume basis, 2018 U.S. beef exports were up 7 percent to 1.35 million metric tons, which is above the previous record tallied in 2011.
The U.S. exported only about $60 million in beef to China last year despite the Asian country having the second-largest consumption after the American market. The ban on U.S. beef exports to China caused the U.S. to lose business, while other major sellers gained share, including Australia and South American countries.
"Our exports to China even without the higher tariff would still make up only a small portion of our global exports, because we're just now starting to get the product reintroduced into China," said Schuele.
The retaliatory duties China slapped on American beef last year raised the tariff from 12 percent to 37 percent. That went into effect in July 2018 and made it more difficult for U.S. beef producers to get a foothold in the Chinese market.