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Have Imports Clouded US Meat Production Efficiencies?

17 February 2012

ANALYSIS - A special report in the February USDA Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Outlook produced by the USDA Economic Research Service maintains that the efficiencies in US production of beef, pork and lamb over the years have been clouded by the amount of meat and livestock that have been imported, writes TheMeatSite Editor in Chief, Chris Harris.

The report by Kenneth H Matthews Jr and Rachel J. Johnson says that since 1972 the US has been producing more beef and pig meat from smaller herds. The January US cow inventory put the US cattle herd at the smallest since 1952.

The report acknowledges that technical efficiencies and genetic improvement have helped to increase the amount of meat that is produced from each beef and pork animal, but it also says that the improvements are not as great as they first might appear, because the US has been increasing more product and animals from countries such as Canada and Mexico.

From 1972 to 2010 beef production rose per US cow by 44 per cent. In 2008, the most recent peak year, production stood at 26.5621 billion pounds. Of this 1.565 billion pounds came from Canada and Mexico.

The Mathews and Johnston report shows that 600 pounds was produced per US cow taken against the census figure of 41.692 million cows.

Similarly, dressed weights per cow have risen from 624 pounds in 1972 to 784 pounds in 2009.


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"The US depends on foreign sources for a significant share of its red meat."

"The US depends on foreign sources for a significant share of its red meat," the report says.

"For beef, foreign sources have accounted for as little as 8.2 per cent (1974 and 1975) to as much as 18.2 per cent (2005). Even during 2003 through 2005 when cattle imports from Canada were subject to restrictions due to the discovery of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, beef from foreign sources accounted for 14.6 to 18.2 per cent of U.S. beef supplies."

The report even acknowledges that imports from Canada fell massively between 2010 and 2011 while rising from Mexico and represented 11 per cent of total US beef production, although this as a percentage of production was down year on year.

While cattle and pig meat and livestock imports into the US were rising from the latter quarter of the last century through to the last decade, the report fails to account for the effect that the recent Country of Origin Labelling laws have had on these imports.

When they came into effect as part of the Farm Bill in 2009, imports from the main suppliers to the US, Mexico and Canada started to slide.

COOL started to differentiate not only between imported meat products, but also between cattle and pigs that had been brought across the border as calves and were raised, finished and slaughtered in the US.

The effect on trade in livestock and meat products between Canada and Mexico and the US was devastating for the Canadian and Mexican producers - to such a degree that the issue went before the disputes panel of the World Trade Organisation.

The repercussions were great. Even some US institutions such as the American Meat Institute spoke out saying that the COOL laws violated international trade regulations.

Mark Dopp, AMI Senior Vice President of Regulatory Affairs and General Counsel said that COOL is inconsistent with trade agreements because of its discriminatory effect on imported meat and imported live animals.

He added that the US had to ensure that the products of other countries "imported into the territory of [the United States] - be accorded treatment no less favourable than that accorded to like products of [US] origin in respect of all laws - affecting their internal sale."

Imports of meat were being treated as a B grade and animals that were raised and imported could not be called US.

However, the WTO has found against the US ruling that imported products were treated less favourably than US products, that COOL created unnecessary obstacles to international trade and that COOL did not fulfil a legitimate objective.

The effect of not only meat product but also livestock imports into the US - particularly those imported to be raised, finished and slaughtered in the US - and the influence that COOL has had on these imports over the last few years could completely skew the figures of what is truly US produced and the increases in productivity and could mask the real improvements that have been made in production efficiencies, livestock management and genetic advances.

To read the Mathews/Johnston report in the USDA Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Outlook, click here.

Chris Harris, Editor-in-Chief

Chris Harris, Editor-in-Chief



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