For the first time in 14 years, China began allowing imports of U.S. beef in late June.
Beef producers in the United States, including in Iowa, had long awaited the opening of that door. China had banned imports of U.S. beef in 2003 after a scare over mad cow disease.
Demand in China for beef has grown, with the country importing about $2.5 billion worth last year, and the country is expected to be one of the largest markets for beef in the world.
While beef out of Omaha was the first reported to head to China, an Iowa beef producer — Iowa Premium in Tama — was among the first group to be certified to send beef to the country.
“We’ve been watching this as an industry since it’s been banned,” Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Johnson said in June. “Any beef company has been anticipating this.”
WHAT’S HAPPENED SINCE
More than four months in, Iowa Premium is no longer the sole Iowa company able to sell its beef to China. Three other companies had received U.S. Department of Agriculture approval by the end of October. They are Thunder Ridge Beef Co. in Sigourney, Pacific Processors in Des Moines and Quality Refrigerated Services, an Omaha-based business with operations in Spencer.
While there are only a few Iowa companies with certification, Iowa beef still can make its way to China via Nebraska, said Joe Schule, a spokesman for the U.S. Meat Export Federation.
“Even if there’s not a lot of volume coming out of Iowa slaughter plants, you’ve still got a fair amount of Iowa cattle that are going over to Nebraska to be processed to China,” he said.
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Sales of U.S.-made beef in China have yet to go gangbusters, according to news reports. The nation’s beef has to compete against meat from Australia, Argentina and Brazil, which China has accepted for years. There’s also still only a limited supply of companies in the United States eligible to sell to China, due to restrictions on what is allowed to enter the country. For instance, beef cannot include certain growth drugs, must be traceable to a U.S. farm and come from cattle born, raised and slaughtered in the United States.
Schule said producers will need to make the cost of those restrictions work for them if they want to sell to China.
“Every producer is going to have the opportunity to participate in the Chinese market, but it’s going to have make economic sense for them,” he said.
Eleven Nebraska companies have received federal certification to ship to China. Twenty-four companies in California, Illinois, Texas, and seven other states have also received approval.
“The market has gone about like we’ve expected in that the product has been quite well received and there’s strong enthusiasm for U.S. beef in China, but we’re clearly being held back by the amount of supply available,” Schule said. “We’re pretty limited on China-eligible beef in the early stages.”
About 1,100 metric tons of U.S.-produced beef — about 2.4 million pounds — valued at $12.5 million was shipped to China as of the end of September, Schule said.
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