Chinese officials say they will lift a ban on U.S. beef imports imposed in 2003 after a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as BSE or mad cow disease, was confirmed in a Washington state cow imported from Canada.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack called Thursday’s announcement “a critical first step” following a recently concluded review of the U.S. supply system. He said he looks forward to further technical discussions to pave the way to resuming U.S. beef exports to that country.
“True access to China’s beef market — consistent with science-based, international standards for trade — remains a top priority for the United States. The United States produces the highest-quality beef in the world, and China’s 1.3 billion consumers are an important market for U.S. producers,” Vilsack said in a statement posted on a U.S. Department of Agriculture website.
Chinese officials have not given a specific timeline for when U.S. beef products will again be officially permitted into the country.
A resumption of beef exports to China is expected to buoy U.S. beef producers, who have been dealing with low prices in recent years.
“The beef industry has suffered huge losses in the last 12 to 14 months,” said Jim Peterson, a Buffalo, MT, rancher and former chairman of the U.S. Meat Export Foundation. “There are a lot of ag producers in both cattle production and farming who are looking for a light at the end of the tunnel. Calves are selling for almost half or less than half of what they were selling for last year.”
China was one of at least 17 countries to restrict U.S. beef imports after the BSE-infected cow was discovered in 2003. Japan and South Korea were two major trading partners that initially refused American beef, although both have since begun to allow importation of certain U.S. beef products.
Because of the trade bans, U.S. beef exports fell from $3 billion to $1.1 billion between 2003 and 2004. Since 2011, however, USDA reported that beef exports are back up to pre-BSE levels and had reached record values by 2014.
The agency estimates that China will import 825,000 tons of beef this year from all sources.
Despite the ban, trade experts say large amounts of American beef have continued to flow into China through backdoor routes such as Hong Kong and Vietnam.
BSE is a fatal brain disease that can affect both humans and animals and has been linked to Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans. BSE was first found in 1986 in U.K. cattle and prompted the destruction of 4.4 million cows.
At least 177 people have died from BSE-related illness in the U.K., while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that four people in the U.S. have contracted the disease.
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