Michigan Farmers Cautiously Optimistic About Beef Trade To China

May 19, 2017

U.S. farmers have guarded optimism about China buying American beef for the first time in 14 years.  

On a windy morning, 50 large black Angus cows graze on a lush green field a few miles south of the main campus of Michigan State University.

MSU plays a key role in America's meat supply. 

"We work with nutrition research, with reproduction research, with disease research," said Dan Buskirk, associate professor of Animal Science at MSU. "Ultimately all of it is desinged to help increase the quality and wholesomeness of beef we produce."

Buskirk remembers the exact day that the safety of the U.S. beef supply came into question.

Dan Buskirk, MSU Associate Professor, Dept. of Animal Science drives around MSU pastures while talking with WKAR.
Credit Reginald Hardwick / WKAR-MSU

"December 23rd 2003... the found one cow with BSE [Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy] in the United States and so overnight all export markets closed," said Buskirk.

BSE, also known as Mad Cow Disease, showed up in one cow in Washington State. According to Food Safety News, U.S. beef exports valued at $3 billion in 2003 fell to $1.1 billion in 2004.

"About ten percent of our beef that was produced in the US was being exported. So that market just stopped," recalled Buskirk.

It took ten years for Japan to trust U.S. beef again. South Korea and Taiwan followed.  

In mid-May 2017, a stunning announcement from The White House.

"China to allow imports of American beef beginning no later than July 16 of this year," said White House spokesman Sean Spicer. "It's been 13 yeas since our cattle producers have been effectively locked out of the Chinese market."

MSU beef center pastures
Credit Reginald Hardwick / WKAR-MSU

It's not yet known how much beef grown on Michigan farms will end up on a plate in Beijing or Shanghai, but Buskirk said the appetite in China for beef is growing. The White House said China could buy up to $2.5 billion worth of beef annually.

"We're obviously not going to get all that," said Buskirk. "There's a lot of world players that will export beef to China too. But we are in the driver's seat when it comes to producing a real high quality beef."

Buskirk said the Chinese market has 1.4 billion consumers and a growing middle class that is consuming more protein.

"The middle class in China is probably larger than the U.S. population as a whole," said Buskirk.

However, there is guarded optimism among U.S. farmers about the deal.

Black Angus cows on MSU beef center pasture
Credit Reginald Hardwick / WKAR-MSU

"Most beef producers - they're not going to be doing cartwheels just yet," said Buskirk. "They're kind of waiting to see what kind of requirements are going to be placed on this beef because that hasn't been all worked out yet."

"It will be a slow start and it will grow over time. But yeah it is pretty exciting."