Editorial: Beef makes a big comeback

Nebraska beef producers who have been in the business for a while well remember the extraordinary plunge in U.S. and Nebraska beef exports that began in 2004. The cause: international concern over mad cow disease.

Nebraska producers saw their overseas sales fall from $502 million in 2003 to $105 million in 2004. For the U.S. beef sector as a whole, overseas sales fell from $3.2 billion in 2003 to $631 million a year later.

But now, for the comeback.

Recent word that the first Nebraska shipments of beef in 13 years will soon be heading to Israel illustrates the welcome turnaround. State officials marked the occasion by personally congratulating Hastings-based WR Reserve, which will start with 200 head of Angus cattle a week.

Nebraska beef exports have risen steadily in recent years as state and national officials and U.S. producers have demonstrated the safety of American beef. The World Trade Organization officially verified the safety of U.S. beef in 2007.

Trade promotion efforts, in which Nebraska has devoted great focus in recent years, also have helped. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, has been energetic in working to end restrictions on our country’s overseas beef sales.

Nebraska’s beef exports have climbed from $380 million in 2007 to $762 million in 2011 to more than $1 billion in 2015 (though slightly down from 2014).

A standout is the strengthening of Nebraska beef exports to Europe, again thanks in large part to marketing by the industry and state government. Nebraska accounted for 42.5 percent of U.S. beef exports to Europe last year, up from only 5 percent in 2005.

For the first half of this year, Nebraska’s share in Europe was some 50 percent. Nebraska quality is clearly winning over consumers there.

A major improvement for U.S. beef exporters is that overseas sales are no longer limited to cattle that are 20 months old or younger. That requirement, in place for years after the rise of mad cow concerns, placed considerable documentation requirements on producers, processors and packers.

China has been something of a question mark for U.S. beef exports. The Beijing government officially said in September it will end the ban on U.S. beef imports imposed in 2003. Chinese authorities have yet to announce import guidelines, however. There’s been uncertainty, for example, over whether the country will allow imports of hormone-treated U.S. beef.

“What we don’t know yet is how much of our supply will be eligible,” says Joe Schuele, spokesman for the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

But it looks as if Nebraska producers are about to receive positive news. Gov. Pete Ricketts and a delegation of Nebraskans left Monday for a trade promotion visit to China. The schedule includes the signing next Tuesday of a commitment to purchase Nebraska beef — encouraging proof of Nebraska’s effective overseas marketing.

A lingering obstacle is the high value of the U.S. dollar, which makes American exports more expensive for overseas buyers. Still, the overall news on the export market for our country’s beef is positive. Roadblocks stemming from the mad cow scare are gone.

Now the task is to build on the strong promotion efforts overseas by the industry and by state and federal officials. Let’s keep the progress going.

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