While analysts speculate about just how fragile the U.S. economy is, reports from one sector of American agriculture are bringing some welcome financial news.

Federal and industry officials say 2010 was the best year on record for U.S. beef exports. "Our beef exports actually eclipsed the record of 2003, which was our highest year," says Philip Seng, President and CEO of the U.S Meat Export Federation (USMEF). He says more than $4 billion worth of beef was exported last year -- a 19% increase in volume and a 32% rise in value.

"If you look at this on a value basis as well, we were up $1 billion over the prior year of 2009," he says, "so it was an extremely positive year."

Market Recovering From Mad Cow

In December 2003 a cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or "mad cow disease," was discovered in Washington State. That incident virtually closed down U.S. beef and pork exports to Japan, South Korea and elsewhere in the world. "What we've been working on since 2003 is to try and get [U.S. products] restored in those markets," says Seng, "as far as our export volumes and values."

And with the exceptions of China -- which still restricts U.S. meat imports -- and Mexico -- which is finding American meat products increasingly expensive -- demand is way up. "The growth was really driven by North Asia," says Seng. "The Republic of Korea [South Korea] was up 100%. Take a look at Japan -- we were up 36%. The Middle East was also up very strongly."

Those improvements come despite special requirements for U.S. beef exports to Japan and South Korea. Both nations allow meat only from relatively young animals into the country -- reportedly to reduce any future risk of BSE. "But in spite of those apparent restrictions, we're still seeing the velocity of our exports to Korea have gone up dramatically," says Seng -- who notes that U.S. beef and pork are filling a void in the local meat market created by an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in South Korea.

There are some political obstacles, as well. According to the Washington Post, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is threatening to hold up the recently concluded U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement unless Seoul reconsiders some of its restrictions on U.S. beef.

Weather Is a Global Concern

The USMEF estimates a global 10% increase in U.S. beef exports this year -- but Seng says the wild cards in that equation are weather and global grain prices. Feed costs from grain make up more than half the cost of beef and pork -- and weather-reduced crops could be a prime reason for inflation when it comes to meat.

"And when I say weather, it's not just weather in Kansas; it's weather in China," he says. " We're looking at five provinces in China being as dry as they've ever been in 100 years. You saw the impact on wheat when Russia decided they wouldn't export wheat last year. Just look at the flooding in Australia. So when you look at weather, this has a tremendous impact as far as prices, and not just in the U.S."

But Seng, who recently returned from Asia with a USMEF delegation, believes the U.S. has an advantage with its beef exports after decades of experience knowing and understanding its overseas consumers.

"The ability of the U.S. to be successful in Asia has to be determined by our ability to adapt," he says. "I've often said these are not markets -- these are cultures that we are marketing to. And the more we understand the cultures we are marketing to, then the more successful we are going to be."

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16 Comments

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bufortharmon

Obama the greatest pres of all time.

February 16 2011 at 9:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ron

Well, I hope the foreigners enjoy our beef, as average Americans can't afford to eat it. If any American enterprise has taken more advantage of the recession, it's the food industry. Prices increase weekly, as packages decrease in size, unknown ingredients are added, and overall quality suffers. I'd like the FDA to explain to consumers how poor and senior citizens are supposed to eat so many servings of fruits and vegetables daily. In my local supermarket just yesterday, green beans were $3.99 per pound, apples (not the fancy kind), $1.99 lb., tomatoes $1.29 each, potatoes $4.59 for 5 lbs., cucumbers $1.19 each, and good old celery $1.49 for an 8 stalks. I guess we don't grow anything in this country any longer, or if we do, its for overseas consumption. I don't get it, despite all the economic theories, free-market baloney, and cries from retailers that they can't seem to make a buck these days. It's capitalism and greed gone nuts, as far as I'm concerned.

February 16 2011 at 1:30 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Ron's comment
chris1011

I buy frozen beans at 1.39 a lb. Why frozen? Because they don't grow here at this time of year. Of course if you insist on fresh, then they must be flown and trucked in at great expense from Mexico, Chile or some other foreign place. Same with apples, they have to come from Chile too. Are you old people all this ignorant or what?

February 16 2011 at 2:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
joe

You said a mouth full. Ever hear of Cargil? They're BIGER than Exxon!!! They're the ones responsible for the corn mono culture. When beef are fed corn they develope liver failure and infections that require them (and in turn US) to be pumped full of antibiotics. THe nitorgen that fertilizes for all of the GOVERNMENT SUSIDIZED corn then flows into the Gulf of Mexico and destroys the eco system there (it was dead before BP shot it in the head). I could go on and on but you get the idea.

February 16 2011 at 2:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
envpty

ya think because our dollar is in the crapper vs. most other world currencies that has something to do with it? our monetary policy (oxymoron???) sucks.

February 16 2011 at 11:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
bhawkes328

hug a tree and become a veggie

February 16 2011 at 11:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
foxylynx

The beef we get in the grocery store keeps going up in price and the quality keeps going down. Cows were not meant to eat corn. The rich farmers keep getting that fat subsidy to grow corn instead of food.

February 16 2011 at 10:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to foxylynx's comment
chris1011

Buy pork, it's cheaper and better for you. A lot less fat.

February 16 2011 at 2:55 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
ideassoul

Probably most of that beef went to China, before they could not afford to eat meat today they are big spenders and probably they like beef taste. I walk around the malls and more and more Chineses are spending a lot of money, my feeling is that while millions of Chineses are very poor and work in horrific condition there are a new class the class that moved up and with good education and do not live with the idea of saving every thing for tomorrow. I guess it is good news for the ranchers export most of that meat to Asia they eat four times a day, ofcourse the people that can affort it!

Ideassoul

February 16 2011 at 9:58 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
KIDKATS

NOT FOR THE BILLIONS OF ANIMALS THAT SUFFER AND MURDERED FOR THEIR BODIES

February 16 2011 at 9:56 AM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
HELLO FROM GRADY

THE MASS MURDERS CONTINUE ALONG WITH CONTINUED DISEASES AND ILLNESSES ASSOCIATED WITH ANIMALS RAISED FOR FOOD..

February 16 2011 at 9:30 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
GARY

YEP, they keep EXPORTING the BEEF and the AMERICANS can't AFFORD to EAT it NOW!!

February 16 2011 at 9:28 AM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to GARY's comment
joe

Yesterday I ate 99 cent top Ramen (basically a bowl of salt and chemicals) today I will go hungry since I can't afford to eat. Before all of the Republicans jump on my back, let me just mention I work 60 hours a week and am the only non Chindian (and lowest paid employee) at my company. Google "Bilderberg" to find out why. I used to eat beef every week at my Dads house when I was a kid.

February 16 2011 at 3:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
davmusgro

Yes we have to export it .One its gettig so americans can't afford as much and also there is the food police saying you can't have it. Oh the selling of your food supply is a sign of a 3rd world country . That and selling your natural resorces

February 16 2011 at 9:22 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply